Liviu Ciulei selected "Elizabeth I" and "The Lost Letter" as the two plays for his extraordinary Bulandra Theater Company to bring from Bucharest on its first American tour, which ended Saturday night at Arena Stage.
"The Lost Letter" is a classic Romanian comedy, written in 1884 by the country's most celebrated dramatist, Ion Luca Caragiale. Presumably, it was included for reasons of national pride and protocol.
But why "Elizabeth I"? Written by an American, Paul Foster, and first presented in New York in 1972, "Elizabeth I" is a playful, slightly precious English history play. It looks and sounds like a modern play; but Ciulei manages to make this happen with almost every play he touches.
"Elizabeth I" gives Ciulei the opportunity to show off his gift for ingenious stagecraft, but seldom does that opportunity elude him, no matter how unlikely the play. At one point during "Elizabeth I," Ciulei almost manages to set the stage on fire; a hot tub becomes so hot that the paper boats floating in its interior are consumed by flames, thus demonstrating the destruction of the Spanish Armada.
It was a wondrous sight, but it still didn't explain the selection of "Elizabeth I," which did not seem to matter much as a play. Perhaps it was included in the tour simply because Ciulei saw the presentation of such an eccentric and relatively recent American play as a badge of cultural cosmopolitanism.
If Ciulei thought that Americans would respond better to "Elizabeth I" than to "The Lost Letter," he was wrong. Caragiale's play is a farcical lampoon of provincial politicans, and its jabs at "dirty tricks" and spineless bureaucrats found a particularly receptive audience in Washington.
Ciulei himself did a hilarious turn as one of the more successful politicans, using his huge eyebrows and his most quavery voice to suggest rampant incompetence with every gesture.
But he was no more remarkable than any of the other actors. This is a top-notch company. And even when the words are incomprehensible, the most marginal players enact bits of business that make the action eminently watchable, especially as positioned on Dan Jitianu's bold and handsome sets.
Headsets with English translation were funished for both plays, but the system produced such a fuzzy sound that virtually nothing could be understood during "Elizabeth I." Some listeners thought the situation improved for "The Lost Letter"; others said it was worse. Generally, the loud crowd scenes were the worst understood.
The last month or so has been a banner period for international theater in the Washington area. In the last few weeks plays were presented in Japanese, French, Spanish, Portuguese/Guarani, Norwegian, Hebrew and Romanian. Of them all, the most easily comprehended was the Portugues/Guarani "Macunaima," at the Kennedy Center, on the night the headset system broke. The audience had to rely on detailed synopses and its eyes, and there was no humming in the ears.
The ease with which "Macunaima" transcended its linguistic boundaries was partially attributable to the strength of the play and its players - but the Bulandra Theater is no slouch, either. When a company is as visually inventive as these groups are, it's clearly better to have no headsets than faulty ones.