by Paula Erizanu
Like many theatre scenes around the world, Moldova’s drama-scape includes traditional productions of Shakespeare or Chekhov, as well as innovative and avant-garde work by a small group of enthusiastic artists.
In reaction to the socialist realism imposed by the Soviet power, after 1991, much of the mainstream theater slipped into aestheticism, rejecting political elements as impure. However, the most interesting experiments in contemporary Moldovan theatre – from both aesthetic and ideas points of view – concern socio-political issues. I will particularly focus on the work of three directors who, together with their teams, are leading contemporary Moldovan theatre towards new directions: Nicoleta Esinencu, Luminiţa Ţîcu and Slava Sambriș.
Born in the late ’70s, the three theatremakers are part of a generation that grew up during the Perestroika, they experienced the overnight change of the alphabet, from Cyrillic to Latin, during their time in school, grew up during the collapse of the Soviet Union, becoming adults in the complicated 90s, a decade dominated by poverty, violence and emigration in search of a better life. These realities have melted into the theatre the make.
Together with actors Doriana Talmazan, Irina Vacarciuc, Viorel Pahomi and cultural manager Nora Dorogan, Nicoleta Esinencu created Teatru-Spălătorie (Laundry Room Theatre) company in 2010. Focusing on documentary, critical plays inspired by leftist theses, the company works in a minimalist aesthetic style. In addition to courageous themes such as the issues faced by LGBT people, women, or factory workers, the company has also tried to create a new way of making theatre in Moldova, rejecting the metaphorical language, formalism and hierarchical structures of traditional theatres and including amateur actors in their productions.
One of the most powerful performances of Teatru-Spălătorie is “Clear History”, a 2012 play by Nicoleta Esinencu that includes recordings of interviews conducted with witnesses and even participants in the Holocaust that took place in Moldova /Romania during the Second World War – a historical event that is barely taught in schools and is little discussed or even known by the general public. The actors move from one story to another, from one character to another, without sets and costumes, highlighting the involvement of Moldovans in the persecution of their Jewish neighbours. One of the most awkward moments in the play is when the actress Doriana Talmazan asks the audience to repeat, line by line, a speech she gives. In the process, it becomes clear that what the public utters are the words of an anti-Semitic speech of General Ion Antonescu. Just like their other plays, “Clear History” addresses the blind spots of mainstream narratives in Moldova, which only regard the country as a victim of foreign invaders.
Due to economic reasons, the Teatru-Spălătorie team now works mostly in Germany and Austria. Having spent many years managing an independent space with a bar and dance club that got demolished, the theatre group hopes to be able to work again in Chișinău, perhaps in a new independent cultural space.
From the same generation as Esinencu and Talmazan, Luminița Ţîcu is a theatre director, university professor and former actor working in both independent productions and for the “Mihai Eminescu” National Theatre in Chișinău. She works closely with a group of actors from Eminescu, as well as with the director, teacher and cultural manager, Mihai Fusu.
One of the most powerful projects signed by Ţîcu is “Casa M”, a 2010 documentary theatre performance, based on testimonies of women who were victims of domestic violence. Compared to Teatru-Spălătorie, they use more metaphorical set-designs and their writing is based on human stories rather than on theses and arguments. More than that, Ţîcu’s team managed to go beyond the spoiled audiences in the capital city, playing for spectators all across the country. Since the ’90s, the cultural life of the Republic of Moldova has been concentrated more and more in Chișinău, so that, in the absence of state support, the cultural circuit that had animated the country during the Soviet period has decreased dramatically. Ţîcu’s initiative tried to correct this.
One of the locations where Ţîcu’s team played “Casa M” was a youth detention centre. Shocked by the conditions in which convicts lived, Țîcu came up, in 2016, with the idea of another project: to stage “Hamlet” in the Rezina Prisonhouse. Her cast consisted of eleven convicts with life sentences, along with actors from the National Theatre “Mihai Eminescu”. Deeply touching, the show in the courtyard of the prison was, for many members of the audience, one of the first opportunities to see the conditions in which inmates live there. For the 11 convicts involved, it was a great opportunity to enrich their lives. The presentation was met with an ecstatic sense of connection between two worlds that had previously been separated. Unfortunately, however, the project lacked continuity.
Former actor and director at the “Eugene Ionesco” Theatre and former guest actor at Teatru-Spălătorie, Slava Sambriș moved away from documentary theatre to embrace his true passion: spectacle, theatre relying on symbols and metaphors. After staging plays by contemporary foreign playwrights such as Werner Schwab and Szekey Szaba, Sambriș opened new paths in 2020, when he took over the position of artistic director of the “Luceafărul” Theatre in Chișinău.
His first play as artistic director of “Luceafărul”, was “Tata/ Father”, written by the Moldovan writer Dumitru Matcovschi in 1974. Sambriș says the idea of staging a local play came when he realized, during his master’s degree in directing at the “I.L. Caragiale” University of Arts in Bucharest, that, due to an inferiority complex, Moldovans often try to imitate others, instead of just being themselves on stage. After rereading the works of several local authors, he says he chose this text because of its dreamlike elements and its way of addressing roots. Sambriș also saw a similarity between the loneliness of the elderly, caused by the urban migration of their children in the 70s and the recent Moldovan migration to the West or to Russia; today, over a quarter of Moldovans live abroad. His fresh and modern interpretation of the play dazed the audiences, with its massive projections of Soviet symbols used in order to establish the era in which the action took place, the traditional peasant house functioning as a multifunctional stage, and the moving music by the contemporary local indie-folk band “Via Dacă” and the legendary Moldovan folk-pop bard, Ștefan Petrache. Interpreting tradition in a novel way, Sambriș wanted to create this show, to help the Moldovans “accept our history”.
Both Sambriș and Ţîcu have also taught at the Theatre Academy — one of the main spaces for experimentation in Chișinău. Among Țîcu`s students are Sava Cebotari and Ina Surdu Cebotari, who founded an independent theatre in Chișinău themselves, but eventually emigrated to Moscow and then to London.
In Moldova, state theatres benefit from state funding, in addition to ticket sales, while independent initiatives depend on grants from foreign foundations, especially German or Austrian organizations. With more support from the state and from the non-governmental sector, Moldova’s innovative theatre initiatives could gain more continuity and scale, expanding across the country. At present, they heavily rely on artistic enthusiasm and an “entrepreneurial” spirit in their permanent quest for alternative sources of funding.
* The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the position of the Romanian Cultural Institute, but exclusively the opinions of the author.