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Media : Popular Turkish Actor Uses Laughter to Heal Society's Wounds : * Levent Kirca makes comedy sketches out of brutality and torture.'The poor need jokes as weapons against oppression,' he says.

January 18, 1994|HUGH POPE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ISTANBUL, Turkey — The uninitiated might think it takes a sick sense of humor to make comedy sketches about police torture, slaughterhouse-like hospitals and death lurking around every corner. But for Levent Kirca, increasingly hailed as Turkey's best comic actor, it is his country that is sick. His job, he says, is to treat its deep social wounds with laughter.

And what laughter. Turks find giggles bubbling up at the mere sight of his protruding eyes, bushy mustache and mobile face. Even a foreign interviewer is liable to weep with laughter as the 44-year-old Kirca relates the tragicomic absurdities that beset Turkish life.

Turkey certainly offers a rich mother lode of inspiration. Culturally, Turks are shaped by seemingly conflicting forces--their Muslim identity, their intellectual identification with the Christian West and their geographical position on the fault line between Asia and the Mediterranean, Western Europe and the Middle East.

"It's a different kind of humor. People here want more than Mel Brook's slapstick. They want something inside. The poor need jokes as weapons against oppression," Kirca said. It is not just the poor who need to laugh away the frustrations that accompany the many pleasures of life in Turkey: from all classes and regions, more than half the population of 60 million tune in every Thursday night to his show--"That'll Do Nicely Television."

"Since turning the ratings upside down in 1986, 'That'll Do Nicely' has ruled the airwaves. Levent Kirca is television's most permanent and indispensable star," said a profile in Turkey's Panorama newsmagazine.

Kirca does not want success to cut him and his 35-person support staff off from reality. He rents a five-story building for their studios amid the mud, workshops and potholed streets of one of the crowded industrial suburbs of Istanbul. "We only have to walk out the door and we are on set," said Kirca, the son of a painter and a teacher who started his career in the theater after he left school at the age of 14.

Kirca's first love is still the stage. Despite a grueling television schedule, he keeps his company busy with musicals and tours of the provinces and Europe.

Kirca is the company's lead actor, director and producer, but his studio is like a collective of the country's best acting talent. Lines are quickly rehearsed and learned on the laughter-filled set. There are no demarcation lines. Cameramen and prop makers are pressed into service with walk-on roles or even dressed up as sheep.

The sketches pull no punches, despite the well-judged buffoonery. In one, Kirca's camera follows a character who innocently sets out to buy a loaf of bread one morning in his pajamas, falls by accident into the hands of the political police and ends up spending long years in a series of jails. In another, it finds that the only place where the discredited Turkish Parliament can muster a quorum is in a vulgar nightclub full of drunken old pols, ethnic Kurdish singers out on parole and pistol-toting feudal bosses.

Anger against the passive acceptance of brutality in rural Turkey gives plenty of scope for the cutting wit of Oya Basar, the group's lead actress and also Kirca's wife. She parodies a glossy after-shave commercial about knowing men by their scent. Dressing herself up in the costume of a peasant wife in a head scarf, Basar sports a massive black eye, simpering that she knows her man "by his jealousy . . . by his blows."

The show cuts even closer to the bone. "We believe women should not be beaten. But as we discussed it for a script, we realized it's not just women," Kirca said. "Everyone is getting beaten in Turkey--soldiers, pupils, children by other children. In Parliament, deputies are not just beating each other, but shooting each other dead."

Kirca bravely lampoons the Turkish armed forces, which, despite the liberalization of the country since the last period of military rule in 1980-83, still felt free last month to throw two respected television journalists in jail just for airing interviews with people who regretted doing their military service.

The police are an even more frequent target. Kirca's Police Festival, set in the torture cells, provided a bitterly satirical version of folk celebrations up and down the country. Instead of dancing in traditional rows, however, the inmates were set into coordinated motion by bursts of electric current. Somehow the absurdity is hilarious. Kirca says he is trying to expose, teach and improve.

He tries not to directly address two of the most divisive subjects on Turkey's political agenda: the ethnic Kurdish question and Islamic fundamentalism. His group privately thinks a religious upsurge is the biggest threat facing Turkey today. However, Kirca said: "The wounds are too fresh. We want to collect everybody under one roof."

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