Dec 22nd, 1989 was the end of a world in Romania. Everything its people had endured for two generations or more – privations which caused them to wait hours in line for a half-dozen eggs or a loaf of bread; a security apparatus so far-reaching that by one estimate one in every four Romanians was an informant; a prison system in which the terms “reeducation” and “torture” were interchangeable; a cult of personality designed to elevate the nation’s tiny, longwinded leader, Nicolae Ceausescu, to godlike status – was smashed in the unforgettable image of a helicopter escaping Palace Square with the tattered remnants of the regime in it and Romanians screaming from roofs and balconies. Three days later Ceausescu was dead, executed by members of his own army.
Actor Dan Istrate was there.
“It’s one of those things, you know when it’s happening, it’s once in a lifetime. It has such a great impact, in the moment you feel it. You can’t explain why, but you know something powerful, something very, very powerful, that’s going to mark you for the rest of your life, is happening.” He talks in the present tense, though the revolution occurred twenty-two years ago. He was just sixteen when it happened, living in the rural town of Tapu, far from the revolutionary uproar in Bucharest (but just down the road from Sighisoara, birthplace of Vlad Tepes, (a/k/a Count Dracula).
“It’s been described by many – the revolution happened on TV,” Istrate explains. “With the exception of those young people (involved in the riots which led to Ceau?escu’s overthrow) , and the hundreds of thousands of people who were in the square in Bucharest and in the big cities…everybody else was watching it on TV – the way all the United States watched the twin towers fall.”
You remember Istrate – perhaps from Synetic Theater’s memorable production of Faust, where he played a manic Satan having his way with Greg Marzullo’s Dr. Faustus. (His first line was “In the beginning was – power,” and if he thought of Ceausescu at the time, who could blame him?)
Or from other Synetic plays in which he took a leading part – in Host and Guest, and in the title roles in Dracula and Don Quixote. He’s been in other venues, too – Studio for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead; GALA for Beauty of the Father, and in a brief but fantastic fight scene in Robert Falls’ King Lear at the Shakespeare, where he also served as the dance consultant. He is a slender, animated man with a shock of unruly brown hair which suggests a young Einstein. He remembers that Ceausescu’s overthrow was even more fantastical than any of that.
“The system was so well in place that it seemed impossible to remove Ceausescu,” he recalls. “We were so frightened and at the same time there was this steaming, this boiling underneath. That’s why it happened so quick. There were years of building anger and desperation. It got to be very, very bad in the late eighties.”
Istrate enumerates the ways in which things got to be very, very bad. There were the shortages. “People would have to wake up in the morning, say, at 3 AM, to get in a line to buy eggs, or some bread.” There was the propaganda. “There was two hours of programming on TV, from eight until ten. With news, and then some propaganda songs and poetry, and then news again, and that was it. They used to call it the sandwich program. There was news, news, and something in the middle. And it was all propaganda. It was horrible.” He is recalling a scene in Mad Forest, in which a teacher gives a lesson in the wonders of Ceausescu. “That’s the level of insanity, which – that’s one of the reasons they didn’t want religion in schools. It’s ridiculous what I’m going to say, but it’s a reality. You shouldn’t have any other gods but Ceausescu. He became like this godlike figure. They wanted to make him that. But it was all based on fear. And on repetition of all these quotes from his speeches. We had to memorize them.”
There was corruption, big-time. “You had to bribe everywhere. If you wanted to get anything, you had to bribe everybody.”
And there was worse.
“There were a lot of cases where people simply disappeared overnight. Put in prison without any trial, because they made a joke at work. Or one of your children said something at school. And that was it. It ended for you. I don’t know – there are infinite examples. Another terrible thing that happened that a lot of people don’t talk about are the atrocities that happened in communist prisons. In which they took the best young people, the best intellectuals, and they put them in prison for being considered national traitors. Just because they had other political views. That they were liberals.”
He thinks about this. He didn’t know about these policies at the time; he had a happy childhood, and life in Tapu was more serene than it was in the big cities. But he’s learned much since. “People would go in [prison] and after years and years they’d be brainwashed, they’d forget why they’re in there, they’d be tortured. Or kept in intolerable conditions…. some people would come in and they, themselves, would become torturers….You had two [choices]. Be tortured and then die, eventually, or be part of the system. And then,” he reflects, “if you want to go farther, Romania was a prison itself.”
We are sitting in the Sabrosos Grill, a chicken-and-steak joint on Colesville Road in Silver Spring. In the background, tinny music plays, and we hear the persistent thwak! of a hammer against meat, tenderizing the food in an untender way. Across the street, Round House Silver Spring is preparing for Forum’s first play of the season, Caryl Churchill’s Mad Forest. It is about the day the revolution came to Romania.
Mad Forest is an incredibly ambitious piece. Commissioned by the London Central School of Speech and Drama and based in large part on interviews with Romanians in the street after the revolution, Churchill’s play relentlessly documents every aspect of the revolution – the elaborate security system in place beforehand; Ceausescu’s cult of personality; the anti-Ceausescu jokes and mutterings, always sub silentio; the bribes and privations; the enmity between Romanians and Hungarians, and then the overthrow itself, with all its violence and mystery – and places it within the context of a modern love story. Istrate says it’s wonderful.
“This is an amazing play. When I read it for the first time, I thought that what Caryl Churchill did was unbelievable. And I think that’s based a lot on the fact she interviewed people. It’s what I call an unfiltered play. She just went there, and interviewed these people, and – it’s really a slice of life. A slice of life in exaggerated circumstances…That’s why it’s a very good play. Because first, it’s very authentic. It really depicts life in Romania and the psychology of her people very accurately, and in the same time, you capture these people in extraordinary circumstances. It’s real, but exaggerated…And that makes this piece of literature very theatrical.” (Our critic, Sarah Ameigh, agreed. You can read her review here.
Churchill does not shy away from difficult subjects in this piece. She explores the tensions between Hungarians and Romanians at length through the edgy relationship of a young Hungarian man, Ianos (Mark Halpern) with the Romanian Vladu family. Istrate says she handles the issue honestly, and that it’s not just Hungarians – but warns not to mistake the edginess for ethnic hatred.
“You know that song in Avenue Q, ‘Everybody’s a Little Bit Racist’? This is such a truthful statement… We grew up with this attitude of ‘hate’” – he supplies the quote marks – “against Hungarians, Germans, and even it’s like this anti-Semitic atmosphere…But it was always done with a smile. There’s a lot of jokes. Lots of jokes. I knew songs and jokes about hanging Germans or Hungarians or they’re worse than the Gypsies or whatever – all like this growing up. But I never felt a real hate toward my German friends. I grew up with Germans, Hungarians in my village. I used to be in a band with Gypsies because I played the accordion, and I would be in their house, go to parties, but – my thought is this: a lot of jokes, people are very politically incorrect in Romania, but I never heard, growing up, of someone shooting somebody because they’re (of another ethic group).” He thinks Churchill has captured this: recalling a scene where Ianos goes to a wedding with the Vladus, Istrate notes, “There is…this old couple which has this hate for the Hungarians, and it’s real. But look at what happens to Ianos. He is still at the party with them…they get into a fight, but in the morning, everybody’s fine. So that’s something about the psychology of Europe as much as Romania itself. ”
Another of the play’s surprising aspects is its exploration of the feeling, widespread in Romania, that there never was a revolution at all – that the uprising was staged to defuse popular anger while replacing one regime with another. Many Romanians even insisted that Ceausescu wasn’t dead at all. (DNA testing, done years later, proved that the body in Ceau?escu’s grave is indeed that of Ceausescu.)
The belief, Istrate says, “wasn’t common, but a lot of people thought of that. And still think that. And the question is this: how many revolutions that we learn about in the history books; revolutions of the world – are really revolutions? How do we know? There’s always a certain degree of manipulation of the masses, I think. And these people who came into power, they were definitely waiting for the moment.” But to Istrate, the revolution was real.
“If you think of a revolution as a change between one political and economic system and a new system, completely different, then absolutely! There was a revolution,” he affirms. “There is freedom of speech in Romania. Freedom of expression. There is a market economy. Of course, there is a completely different society. And I can go in and out in a minute. So yes, there was a revolution.”
Director Michael Dove initially asked Istrate if he wanted a part in Mad Forest, but he had another commitment. He did serve as a choreographer and language consultant. He gave the cast his sense of the musicality of Romanian life.
“I love the traditional Romanian music,” he says. “And it’s like my soul, of course. And the way they moved, the way they danced (at the wedding scene which concludes the play), I tried to give them that – there is a pride in the way you dance something, and I was trying to convey the fact that you keep from doing it very matter-of-fact. At a wedding, everybody dances. Everybody – they just go and they start to dance. And – it’s not silly. It might look silly from outside, from a jaded, American, young person…” He stops to think for a minute, and sighs.
“If you go to a club in America nowadays, it’s very sad…It’s a sea of people, but each individual, they’re very alone. You go to a club, people in their twenties, they cannot…dance with each other. They can’t do that. Everybody dances alone. It’s very difficult to go in and invite a girl to dance.”
It was different in Romania, and he misses it. “When I grew up – thank God! – you’d go and you’d invite the girl, and people would dance with each other. There was a lot of touching. There was a lot of what would be now, here in America, considered inappropriate touching. But nobody – nothing was done against anybody’s will…Because in dance, there is an exchange of sexual energy. Maybe it doesn’t ever consummate. But – you let it out. In the dance.”
Dance is one of the reasons he couldn’t take an acting role in Mad Forest. He is doing a film about his current passion, the Argentinean Tango. Istrate is discovering that tango is more than a dance; it is a metaphor for a well-lived life.
“I’m taking lessons, and I’m getting it, but with tango it’s a lifelong endeavor…With tango, the more you know, the more you realize that you don’t know,” he says. “A lot of people in the tango world call it ‘the dance of life.’ And it really is the dance of life. It’s the best encapsulization of the relationship between a man and a woman,” he says. “It’s not what a lot of people think: ‘oh, it’s this sexy dance.’ It’s very sexy, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. You go deep into tango, you discover the story of Adam and Eve. You have the story of mankind, the engine that pushes the world forward. The conflict between man and woman. And how do you reconcile two principles: man and woman. You make them function harmoniously. It’s like – honestly, I’m almost afraid to talk about it because it’s unbelievable. I’m discovering it with every lesson. It’s beautiful.”
The tango, Istrate avers, is beautiful because it is about life, which can also be beautiful. “In tango, the misconception is that the man leads and the woman follows. The truth is that the man suggests, the woman goes or no, but if the woman goes, she leads.” Learn the principles of tango, Istrate suggests, and you learn the principles of happiness. He hopes to tango in his eighties, he says, “but more than that I want to build a love-based relationship with my girlfriend, that I want to marry and have children. I want to do what my parents did, you know. To me, the ultimate is my parents, the way they brought us, even during communism, and to be able to be with so much love, and my father was amazing – my father passed away, recently. In December, it’s going to be a year. And he was the best man I ever met. And this is a man who never said ‘I love you’ but it happened…I never saw him angry with my mom, or anything like that. Being tender, holding hands…But that’s how I know love, to be best. I can read a lot of books about love, or go to church, but love is from my parents. And that’s a tango – that’s right there.”
And this tango, between Istrate’s mom and dad, helps to explain his fabulously happy childhood, notwithstanding that it was spent under communism in the mad forest that was Romania. “My childhood was, you know, heaven on earth,” he says. It was his parents who did it. “How they improvised that – it’s really amazing, because people are afraid to have one child. My parents had four kids. We didn’t have anything – but we had everything. It was amazing. Quite amazing.”