Paul Foster's "Elizabeth I" premiered on Broadway in 1972 and has been playing to packed houses for the last five years. But if you've never heard of the play, it could be because the packed houses have not been on Broadway -- where it closed after two weeks -- but in Bucharest, Romania.
The Broadway reviews were hostile, says Foster, 45, the president and co-founder of the LaMama Theater in New York. "The critics killed me. But the gods were merciful because I came back by way of Romania." Foster has been to Bucharest three times since his play joined the repertory of the Boulandra Theater Company there. "It's not that I'm in love with the system," he says. "I'm basically a Republican, but they treat you like a movie star. They want to buy your blue jeans."
"It's the biggest success they've ever had in Romania since the war," says Foster.
Director Liviu Ciulei, who also has staged the English-language version that will open here at the Terrace Theater Tuesday night (marking the start of the Acting Company's three-week Washington visit), heard about the play through his friend and colleague Andre Serban, who had left Romania to set up shop with Joseph Papp in New York City. Ciulei read the play, liked it and decided to do it in 1973. And then, according to Foster, came three stages of Romanian government censorship. The censors reviewed -- and suggested changes in -- the original English, the initial Romanian translation and an actual performance inspected before the public premiere. But the changes they ordered, says Foster, were not aimed at toning down the play's abundant lewdness, but at brightening up its rather pessimistic view of the world, which didn't mesh with the upbeat outlook favored behind the Iron Curtain.
Foster theorizes that his play caught fire in Romania because it was the country's first look at a piece of really modern, irreverent American theater. It may also have helped, he says, that "Elizabeth I" had met with some apparent government disapproval. The theater is a "great voting place" in Romania, says Foster.