ONE SUPPOSES THE sentimental English title of Romanian playwright Anca Visdei's play would sound better and mean more in the original French, as would perhaps everything in this ill-conceived but earnest production. The play's true subject is the artist in exile, but as so often happens, it appears that something has been lost in translation, something that would make the tribulations of two sisters trapped in different countries--one in Nicolae Ceausescu's Romania, the other in Switzerland--sound and feel like the important philosophical/political meditation it is evidently trying to be.
Always Together, presented by Theatre Lagniappe at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage, introduces us to Alexandra (Laura Depta), an 18-year-old aspiring writer who gets sniffed out as a subversive early in the Ceausescu regime, forcing her to seek political asylum in Switzerland. Alexandra's younger sister, Ioana (Kirsten Frantzich), is an aspiring actress who chooses to stay in Romania and brown-nose the powers-that-be into giving her some work. Before Alexandra takes off for Switzerland, the sisters make a pact to stay "always together," but they don't, of course. They write each other diligently for a while, but just when their lives start to get interesting--that is, just when some elements of true human complexity enter the picture--communications shut down, 15 years whip by, and the play limps toward its inevitable, connect-the-dots conclusion.
Structurally, the play is all but doomed from the start. After Alexandra takes off for Switzerland early on, the entire story is told through letters and phone calls. Director Pam Nice tries to squeeze as much drama out of this epistolary to-and-fro as possible, but there's only so much you can do with actors who must recite letters out loud, especially if those letters aren't particularly witty or interesting. Which brings us to the crux of the matter: For all of the supposed repression and grief attached to living under the monstrous Ceausescu regime, most of the banter between Alexandra and Ioana could be the idle chatter of any two sisters anywhere. The only difference is that, in addition to talking about theater, food, romance and clothes, Ioana occasionally mentions such commonplace facts of her life as long food lines and mandatory gynecological exams (ordered by Ceausescu to prevent pregnant women from seeking abortions). Alexandra's exile is forced, of course, but other than being unable to attend her mother's funeral, her problems in Switzerland aren't much different from those of any foreign-exchange student grappling with the people and customs of a strange land.
Arguably, this refusal to dwell on the politics of the sisters' separation adds an element of universality to the play. After all, these young women are in their late teens and early 20s; their thoughts are largely the stuff of unfulfilled dreams and burning ambitions, not the mechanisms of disillusionment. Unfortunately, this focus on the mundane undermines the play's ability to address the effects of oppressive politics and culture on artistic expression--a theme Visdei broaches a number of times but never really explores, leaving us to listen to Ioana complain about how she can't get a decent part, and to Alexandria bitch about how it's not enough to write well to get published--you have to know the right people (sound familiar?).
And yet, for all of its faults, Always Together does have its share of redeeming qualities. Both Laura Depta and Kirsten Frantzich inject their sisterly secret-sharing with a charming and frequently giddy energy. Though these women are playing characters who are forced to deal with circumstances they did not create or choose, they do it with enough verve to keep things lively. The laughs aren't huge, but there are some welcome and surprising chuckles. Some interesting ideas are also floated, one of them being that artists everywhere--even America--are refugees of a sort. Alexandra and Ioana go through virtually identical struggles to achieve some measure of artistic satisfaction. In Romania, Ioana finds her calling performing for people who need the distraction of theater to survive, even if it is mostly propaganda. Conversely, in Switzerland, Alexandra finds that no one wants to read her scorching diatribes against the Ceausescu regime--all the cultural marketplace wants from her is comedies. Sure, it's great to live in a country where you can say or do anything you want, but if nobody cares, what's the point?
There's also the matter of funding. What's the difference, really, between a dictatorship that only funds artists who agree to say nice things about it, and a funding system that only provides support for artists and organizations whose programs address certain socially acceptable topics aimed at nurturing a state-approved variety of constituents? In a better, deeper play, these are the sorts of questions that might get asked with enough force to make the gossip of two sisters really mean something. CP
Always Together continues at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage through April 27; 649-4446.
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