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Stirring Recollections From a Native Daughter : Theater: Protests in Romania are the backdrop for Oana-Maria Hock's 'The Almond Seller,' which opens Thursday at UCI.

March 09, 1994|MARK CHALON SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

IRVINE — In the early summer of 1990, playwright Oana-Maria Hock visited her native Romania. What she found was a country struggling to find itself after a revolution that abolished Communist rule.

The nation's reviled dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, had been executed a few months before, and Romania's new leader, Ion Iliescu, faced a crisis as hundreds of students fought with thousands of miners in Bucharest over the direction the new government was taking.

Hock witnessed the protests and riots in the streets. Fearing the violence, she eventually retreated to her hotel room, wondering if Romania would ever recover. In the wake of that experience, the 40-year-old dramatist wrote "The Almond Seller," which has its West Coast premiere Thursday at UC Irvine.

The play, one of seven by Hock that have been produced in theaters from New York to San Diego since she immigrated to the United States in 1980, uses the bloody battle between the miners and students as a backdrop. Thrown into this real-life event are Hock's central creations: three young Romanians and the title character, who is an almond seller and gravedigger.

Two of the Romanians are men, once close and now fighting on opposite sides. The third is a female journalist, now living in the United States, who returns to naively "do a photographic essay of free Romania."

As described in a 1991 New York Times review of the play's U.S. premiere, she's the heroine "caught up by the siege of events . . . clear that she has returned too late. As the playwright indicates, to know a revolution one must live through it--or die in it."

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Obviously, "The Almond Seller" is a political play. But Hock, who now lives in Montreal, was quick to dismiss any notions that her work has an overriding political agenda.

"I don't see it that way. I see it more as a theatrical meditation about the meaning of being a Romanian," she said in a recent telephone interview. "It's about a country that has been mutilated by Communism . . . it's about Romania's struggle for a collective identity in the middle of this new social order."

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Hock noted that "The Almond Seller" is highly symbolic, despite the use of recent history as an anchor. The almond seller, for instance, roots for relics in a mass grave, finding "a holy mess" of bones, spoons and wild radishes that Hock said are metaphors for Romania's past.

"He is certainly a mythical character," she explained. "He knows that the people are in crisis and must dig into their past to find truth. You have to dig very deep, be very passionate about it, to find yourself, your cultural self. Without that, you can't move on to your future."

As for that future, Hock is optimistic. She said the Romanian people are in the midst of a rocky rebirth that will take a long time; shifting from socialism to democracy is a hard transition. But Hock believes that Romania eventually will "advance politically, artistically and economically."

There was a time when Hock doubted that could happen. Before coming to the United States, she was a drama critic for the state-run National Theater in Bucharest. Her experiences provided a microcosm for the repression that affected the entire country.

All plays were censored, as well as her reviews and essays. The Ceausescu government banned certain writers, including Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco, for their nihilistic views; other dramatists were outlawed for their political bents.

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Ironically, she said, this oppression created a theater of subtle defiance.

"Living under Ceausescu was such a nightmare, and the theater was one . . . escape," Hock said. "Paradoxically, it was a very good theater (both underground and in mainstream arenas) because metaphor was used at the highest level. We couldn't express anything in a direct way, so allegory had to be clever enough to fool them."

In her visits following Ceausescu's overthrow, Hock has been buoyed by the regeneration in the stage that has come with new freedoms. It will take a while before the events are placed in perspective ("artists are too close to it now," she said), but Hock feels it's only a matter of time.

She is also hopeful that there won't be a repeat of the violence she observed in 1990. Hock said she was horrified when 7,000 miners attacked students--many who protested that Communists had been retained in the new government, which they claimed was dictatorial--after Iliescu publicly denounced the students on television. The miners, it was alleged, had been operating under orders from Iliescu or his subordinates.

"It was terrible; you felt it was coming out of the legacy of Ceausescu," Hock said. "The miners were acting out of the repressed anger of that regime. It was the effect of living under violence for so many years."

As for her own future, Hock plans to return to Romania again, maybe in the fall, to produce one of her plays there for the first time. She isn't sure but thinks it may be "Waiting for Godot to Leave," a still-unfinished piece that picks up where Beckett's famous absurdist comedy, "Waiting for Godot," leaves off.

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Hock also would like to visit Orange County to see UCI's production of "The Almond Seller," which is being directed by her longtime friend, drama professor Annie Loui.

"I know Annie understands what I'm trying to do with my writing. She has a wonderful way of visualizing it," Hock said. "I'm not sure I'll be able to come, but I'd love to see it for myself."

* UC Irvine's production of Oana-Maria Hock's "The Almond Seller" opens Thursday at 8 p.m. in the Fine Arts Studio Theatre, UC Irvine. Performances continue Friday and Saturday and Wednesday through March 19 at 8 p.m. $6 to $8. (714) 856-6616 or (714) 856-5000.

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