Chicago Actors Ensemble


Itinerant Theater Guild

at the Rainbo Club

Naked bodies in the street. . . . Corpses. . . . Women with their babies, publicly feeding their babies, but they have no, no breast, just flat. Babies with crazed eyes, looking. –Jan Karski, a Polish witness quoted in Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, describing the Warsaw ghetto as he found it in the late summer of 1942.

Dzuma means “the plague.” In Dzuma, exiled Polish playwright Kazimierz Braun builds a moral and political fable around an outbreak of plague.

It’s not an unprecedented idea. The metaphor’s nothing if not popular these days. Last season alone, the Goodman Theatre mounted Peter Barnes’s Red Noses, Northlight ran Karel Capek’s The White Plague, and the Organic offered Maria Irene Fornes’s The Danube–the first two being moral and political fables built around an outbreak of plague; the last, a moral and political sharp poke in the eye built around the plaguelike effects of a nuclear catastrophe. There’s a master’s thesis for somebody in the study of contemporary theatrical pestilence.

Why the epidemic of interest in epidemics? I’ll tell you what I think. I think plague is the central image in all these scripts because plague is the central image of the 20th century. Nothing else quite captures the spirit of the age. The sense of affliction and helplessness. The sense of farce and convulsion. The millennial sense of living at the end of history.

We’ve got AIDS, after all. And vast famines. Also, the greenhouse effect. Also, the plastics that never decompose, the nuclear waste that never cools, the toxic chemicals that make eating even an apple a risky business.

We’ve got drugs and the war on drugs, poverty and our absolute ineptitude in the face of poverty. We’ve got Mussolini and Pinochet. We’ve got the pathological avarice that makes Reaganism work.

Most of all we’ve got the political psychosis that’s turned this entire century into one long holocaust, stretching from Armenia to Auschwitz to Kampuchea and on to Guatemala. People like to think of genocide as an aberrant tragedy, occurring in isolation; but in fact it’s the norm, and it’s continuous. A motif for the times. Our own Black Death. No wonder our playwrights think in terms of plague.

The reality behind Dzuma–the true-life pestilence underlying its fiction is the nasty bout of repression that overtook Poland in 1981, when General Jaruzelski declared martial law. This is never quite stated outright, of course: Braun was living and working in Poland when he wrote Dzuma and was therefore compelled to speak in code. But the code’s not hard to break. Polish audiences seem to have broken it easily enough, reportedly filling Braun’s Teatr Wspolczesny well beyond capacity and conferring 106 standing ovations–one for each performance–until the government shut both show and theater down.

Here, in the play’s American premiere production at the Chicago Actors Ensemble, the decoding process is expedited by the addition of a prologue lifted from Tadeusz Konwicki’s The Polish Complex, in which the author discusses his inscrutability as a Pole, telling us we’ll understand him much better when his nation’s fate blows, like some contagion in the wind, “over to the West and stands above your country, your home, your head, when the torturers of the Great Destiny drag you from your warm bed and begin endlessly torturing you with a hopeless daily life, gags, shackles, begin slowly chipping away at your brain, persistently poisoning your heart . . .” Thus, the Poland/pestilence equation is rendered unmissable.

Even so, what we see onstage and in the various rooms to which we’re led during this promenade-style production isn’t Jaruzelski’s clampdown per se, but the progress of an actual biological disease–an outbreak of bubonic plague, brought on by a squad of vicious, rapacious, insidious, well-organized, and thoroughly insolent rats.

We see one man die and learn that others are dropping like flies. We see a foreign journalist go mad by degrees as he looks for ways to escape quarantine and go home. We see a writer try and fail to write a cheap romance while the epidemic closes in around him. We see a bureaucrat describe the inevitable internment camps and a priest sermonize on faith and courage. We see doctors and nurses reduced to cleaning up after the rats.

In one long segment, a company of actors shows up to dispel “the prevailing sadness of our community” by performing Moliere’s The Learned Ladies. The rats see to it they don’t succeed. Or survive, either.

The situation, in short, is pretty dire. Not only, as one character points out, because of the suffering and death, the social and economic paralysis, the isolation brought about by the plague, but because the remaining people have begun to accustom themselves to it all. Somebody’s started putting out a newspaper called The Plague Chronicle.

And yet Dzuma is not without hope. It may in fact be about hope. About the possibility of communal resurrection. A young mother gives a speech on the subject at the end of the play, while pulling diapers from her basket and hanging them on a barbed wire fence to dry. Braun even permits a love affair of sorts between a heartbroken, dedicated doctor and his iron-willed friend–a teacher with more positive mental attitude than W. Clement Stone could shake a stick at.

That final diapers-on-barbed-wire image isn’t original with this production or its codirectors, Rick Helweg and Jill Daly. It comes–like most of the other blunt, eloquent images here–from Braun’s text, which is arranged something like a shooting script for a film, with dialogue in one column and the mise-en-scene set alongside it in another. What Helweg and Daly and company have done is taken the mise-en-scene and given it an absurd and vivid life. Sometimes it’s the small things that do it: the ritualized motions of several nurses impart a special ominousness to a scene set in an operating room. Sometimes it’s the big: rat-squad member Michael Franco takes exquisite advantage of one of Braun’s best theatrical ideas, performing a danse macabre–at once gruesome and offhanded–in a plague ward.

There’s a charmingly bitter comedy, a dark slapstick, in passages like those where Christopher Coldoff’s marooned journalist sinks deeper and deeper into bureaucracy and despair. Or where Eric Ronis’s hack writer keeps stumbling back to his typewriter, hoping to push past his bad first sentence, only to have the phone or the radio or voices from the street remind him of the plague and send him deeper into his block.

The horror’s more straightforward in Mark Nelson’s performance as a porter stricken by the disease, as is the calm endurance in Hilary Mac Austin’s performance as the young mother hanging out her wash.

The one place where this Actors Ensemble Dzuma goes seriously wrong–despite some rough production values–is in its naturalistic treatment of the two heartthrobs: the doctor and the teacher. Plunked down amid the symbolism and theatricality of everything else in the show, they look hokey and bland. Significantly, they only become interesting when, stripped down for a swim, they cease to be characters in the traditional sense of the word and metamorphose instead into a vision of health and hope among the ruins.

Dzuma, after all, is a fable. It doesn’t need pathos. It doesn’t even need a specific real-world correlative like, say, the situation in Poland to give it validity. Because the metaphor holds for so much in our lives. Dzuma’s about plague. And the plague, as Braun himself has said, “is Evil.”

I know. You tried like hell, but you just couldn’t get down to Disney World to see the walking, talking Abe Lincoln robot this summer. Me neither. Yeah, it hurts.

But I found solace at the Rainbo Club. A neighborhood tavern with unpretentious art-world pretensions, the Rainbo Club’s got Stephan Mazurek’s Sydney: Dummy at Large playing on a small–really small–stage behind the bar. Droll Sydney has got Disney-style action for a fraction of the cost and trouble.

Of course, Sydney himself is no Lincoln. A ventriloquist’s dummy whose dissipations can be read on his unvarnished, deeply chipped, and bug-eaten face, Sydney’s a tired spy about to get an unscheduled rest. We find him in a hospital bed, being interrogated by his wry superior officer. While the two of them talk, manipulated by unseen mechanisms, a series of several hundred remarkable slides provides a complement and counterpoint to Sydney’s story.

And what, as they say, a story it is. A dark tour through the sleaze and cynicism of the puppet underworld, where life is cheap and love’s just a bad idea. It’s hilarious. And kind of marvelous, too–with a million great little touches like Sydney’s crummy bed-in-a-drawer efficiency flat and the scene at Club Costa, a seedy doll bar frequented by the likes of “the infamous Charlie McCarthy dummy,” who’s really “nothing but a cheap third-world plastic, bought secondhand and applied to a first-world design.”

Strangely enough, it’s also rather affecting. Sydney’s bad end really hurts. I honestly felt for the lug. I’d like to see the Disney people engineer that.