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  • The Magic World Behind the Curtain: Andrei Serban in the American Theatre
  • Kazimierz Braun
The Magic World Behind the Curtain: Andrei Serban in the American Theatre. By Ed Menta. Artists and Issues in the Theater, Volume 5. New York: Peter Lang, 1995; pp. xiv + 208. $39.95.

Ed Menta’s book concentrates on Andrei Serban’s American career, but also explores both its Romanian and international aspects. It is clearly and logically structured, and its scholarly apparatus is solid and detailed, comprising sources, notes, bibliography, and productions lists (my one reservation is that he fails to include the dates of the openings).

The first chapter illustrates Serban’s directorial beginnings in Romania, a country ruled first by Soviet-style Stalinists and then by a dictator. The traditional connections of Romanian culture with western Europe, especially France, equipped Serban with a broad European perspective and made easily accessible to him the best traditions of the Great Theatre Reform, including the visions of Craig and Appia, the critical theories of Piscator and Brecht, Meyerhold’s metaphorizing of action, and Artaud’s theatrical process. Curiosity and a burning desire for innovation led Serban to explore Asian theatre traditions as well. He explosively blended these different sources in such productions as I Am Not The Eiffel Tower by Ecaterina Oproiu, Julius Caesar, and The Good Woman of Setzuan. Serban concluded his informal graduate studies by directing Ubu Roi and Arden of Faversham in LaMama and assisting Peter Brook in Orghast.

In the two next chapters, Menta analyzes two major bodies of Serban’s American productions: his interpretations of ancient tragedies and his Chekhovian works. The former included Medea, Electra, and The Trojan Woman, eventually developed into Fragments of Greek Trilogy (1974), a five hour production. Serban’s total theatre overwhelmed his spectators, employing physical discipline and vocal training based both on Asian theatre and Brook’s experiments, as well as Artaudian cruelty and his own imaginative and unusual approach to space. Both The Trilogy and Agamemnon (1977), which followed the same style, were milestone achievements in the avant-garde staging of the Greek classics. The Trilogy, seen at dozens of international festivals, was used by Serban as his homecoming production in Bucharest in 1990.

In his cycle of Chekhov’s works: The Cherry Orchard (1977), The Seagull (1980), Three Sisters (1982), and Uncle Vania (1983), Serban’s approach was closer to Meyerhold’s style than to Stanislavsky’s stagings. The director rejected descriptive realism in favor of visionary images. Instead of somber nostalgia he opted for a comic, or even farcical, mood. His productions, metaphoric and pictorial, constituted a new chapter in American interpretations of Chekhov’s works.

In the chapter about “New Fabulism” (a term coined by Mel Gussow to describe Serban’s emphasis on cyclical cultural rituals of birth, death, and regeneration, celebrated in “an overall atmosphere of playfulness, fancy, and fun” [89]), Menta sagaciously analyses such different productions as The Good Woman of Setzuan (1975–78, 1987), An Evening of Molière Farces (1978, 1891), The King Stag (1984), and The Serpent Woman (1988). The common denominators of all these productions were the “use of fairy tale and ancient myths, and a bright and colorful visual style that often mixes puppetry, masks, dance, and circus elements in a pageant-like fashion” (89); this approach emphasizes a presentational acting style, combining “theatrical conventions of various Asian theatre forms such as Kabuki or Bunraku and the Italian commedia dell’arte” (89).

Menta’s book is enriched by his account of Serban rehearsing Twelfth Night at the American Repertory Theatre in 1989, and includes an interview with the director. The last chapter, “In Place of a Conclusion: Serban in the 90s,” refers to Serban’s noble but failed attempt to return to the Romanian stage (where for three years he headed the National Theatre in Bucharest), and a new aspect of his work: teaching acting at Columbia University in New York. Menta also acknowledges Serban’s promoters and mentors: Ellen Stewart, Peter Brook, Robert Brustein, and Joseph Papp, as well as his most important collaborators: composer Elizabeth Swados and actress Priscilla Smith.

Astute and informative as it is, this book might serve...

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