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THEATER | Theater Review

Doctrine, Not Therapy, Is the Cure in 'Patients'

March 30, 2000|JANA J. MONJI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With his right eyebrow quizzically lifted like a limp question mark, writer Yuri Petrovski (Jeremy Lawrence)--to whom Stalin personally awarded a medal for cultural achievements--becomes a teacher and honored guest at the Central Hospital for Mental Disorders of Moscow in 1953.

His mission: to cure anything from schizophrenia to depression. How? By enlightening the patients to the wonders of Soviet Communist history.

Director Florinel Fatulescu gives the right touch of the absurd to this well-acted world premiere of Matei Visniec's "How to Explain the History of Communism to Mental Patients." It was translated from French by Lawrence and Catherine Popesco, for a collaboration between the Open Fist Theatre Company and the Catherine Popesco Foundation for the Arts at the Open Fist Theatre.

The patients, clothed in a haphazard mix of ragged outer garments and sleepwear, gather into a tight chorus of choreographed craziness, singing the praises of communism. They are watched by a pompous director, Grigori (Adrian Sparks); a nymphomaniac nurse, Katia (Hepburn Jamieson); and a sturdy assistant director, Stepanida (Samantha Bennett), who swills vodka and writes reports to Moscow.

Grigori confidently intones that "certain mental disorders can be cured with the compelling history of communism." In response, Yuri simplifies the grand sweep of events, saying the people wanted to "build a country where no one will ever have [expletive] dumped on them again."

In this manner, Visniec distills the contradictions and cruelties behind the Iron Curtain, from Lenin to Stalin. Through Yuri's haunted memories and visions, alarming images rise. A photographer remembers that his great service to Stalin was removing fallen comrades from official photos and sometimes adding new, more favorable people. The concept of history has become warped--because reality was of little consequence as long as Stalin was served.

Under the sure guidance of Fatulescu, the atmosphere of tragic absurdity permeates every moment on Jan Sytnik's stark set. Wooden beams hold up off-white curtains, leading the eye to a gigantic realistic portrait of Stalin hung on a stone wall. It's a roughly constructed altar to a dominating demigod who will soon fall.

Leif Gantvoort's lighting design caresses the faces of the ensemble members, filtering through the curtains and windows. More often, the light casts an adoring glow off Stalin's portrait. Rodica Fatulescu's original music combines with the visuals for a seamless production that runs a tad long but darkly justifies the title.

BE THERE

"How to Explain the History of Communism to Mental Patients," Open Fist Theatre Company, 1625 N. La Brea Ave. Hollywood. Thursdays, Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Friday, April 28, 8 p.m.; April 2, 16, 3 p.m. $15. (323) 882-6912. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.

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