In 1983 Kestutis Nakas was on the verge of giving up acting, even though he’d been landing occasional roles in TV commercials and soaps. “I wasn’t working enough,” says Nakas, who was living in New York at the time. “But then I said, ‘I’m going to do one more thing before I quit.'”
He decided to stage a ridiculously gory production of Titus Andronicus, casting trained actors and performance artists like Ann Magnuson and Steve Buscemi alongside raw amateurs. He mounted the show–which employed “gallons of blood”–at the East Village’s Pyramid Club, and it was an instant success. “Then all these East Village clubs wanted me to do things,” he says. “It didn’t seem like a career then. It seemed like something to do.”
Nakas went on to become a fixture on the East Village performance scene, writing and directing a series of vaudevillian plays about, among other things, Andrew Carnegie and the supposed occult power of the sword that pierced the side of Jesus on the cross. Then, in 1985, he applied for a six-week language program in Lithuania. Nakas’s parents had fled the country during the Soviet takeover, and his first language had been Lithuanian, though he’d refused to speak it once he’d started school in Mesa, Arizona. The trip was an eye-opening experience. “I was surprised at how incredibly beautiful I found it,” he says. “You had these nationalist, patriot-type people conducting you around to these places and trying to inspire you with their love of it. In the meantime you’re being continually followed by the creepy state security apparatus and being delivered healthy doses of propaganda.”
The experience inspired his next work, a sprawling musical farce about medieval Lithuania called When Lithuania Ruled the World. “I had intended to write the whole story in one play,” he says. “But it kept turning into the next part and the next part and the next part.” The first section, performed at the Pyramid Club in 1986, covered the 13th-century rule of the country’s first king, Mindaugas, and combined performance-art-based theater with anachronistic pop culture references, over-the-top costumes, and actors speaking in a rhyme scheme Nakas calls “iambic funtameter.”
“My father saw it, and he loved it,” says Nakas. “But I remember him saying to one of my friends, ‘I liked it. Was it good?'”
Part two, which focused on the 14th-century grand duke Gediminas, was mounted at La Mama in 1988. Two years later Nakas took a job teaching theater at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. There he wrote the third installment, about his namesake, the grand duke Kestutis, who ruled the country with his brother Algirdas. With 26 actors in some 50 roles, it premiered at Anthology Film Archives in 1992 to critical and popular acclaim.
“It’s funny because we got these mixed crowds–denizens of the East Village and Lithuanians from Queens and Brooklyn,” says Nakas. “I think part of the experience was those two crowds encountering each other.”
In the summer of 2000 Nakas moved to Chicago, where he now teaches theater at Roosevelt University. The latest and final installment of the play, which he began writing a year later, focuses on Kestutis’s son Vytautas, the last pagan ruler in Europe, who spent his life battling the Teutons and trying to gain papal recognition as king. “He really was this kind of enlightened leader,” says Nakas. “If he had been given a crown, then Lithuania would have been established as a kingdom at the dawn of modern Europe. Who knows what the future might have been? Lithuanians view that as the tragic outcome of his reign.”
In the play, which features Nakas as Vytautas and his wife, Audre Budrys, in the roles of Vytautas’s mother and wife, Vytautas travels to Chicago, where he meets a mayor who “spouts this Nelson Algren-ese about Chicago being a bodacious back alley of a town.” The piece also references Lithuania’s standoff against the Soviets in 1990 and ’91, when it became the first republic to secede from the Soviet Union, and the country’s heroic aviator duo, Darius and Girenas, who flew across the Atlantic in a two-person plane not long after Charles Lindbergh’s historic flight. “It was a big source of national pride,” says Nakas. “They made it close to home and then the plane crashed. It’s the type of tragic almost-success that Lithuanians tend to fixate on–like Vytautas almost getting the crown. It’s almost like a complex we have as a people. That’s why it was so important in 1991 to not almost get independence.”
He says it’s not necessary to be Lithuanian or to have seen the other three installments to enjoy the fourth. But ultimately, he says, “I want to go back and fix up the first three parts, so they can be presented in one long weekend, like a Wagnerian opera.”
When Lithuania Ruled the World, Part IV opens Saturday, August 30, at 7:30 PM and runs through September 28 at the Chicago Cultural Center’s studio theater, 78 E. Washington. Tickets are $15, $10 for students and seniors, and $25 for a September 21 performance and reception benefiting the company. Call 312-576-0011.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.