Dictator's Folly

The 30th of Baydak needs to swim in deeper waters.

Some aspects of dictatorship -- at least of certain kinds of dictatorship -- are irresistibly funny. This has to do with what happens when a man possessed of a colossal ego finds himself in a position where that ego goes completely unchecked. Many dictatorships of both the right and the left share certain characteristics. The leader lives in luxury while his people go hungry. He has huge monuments erected to himself -- palaces, statues, gem-encrusted thrones, entire government ministries, the occasional opera. He takes on a title, such as Father of the Nation or Beloved Leader, and his image -- usually clad in full military regalia -- becomes ubiquitous on posters, stamps and currency. Information is replaced by sloganeering, inconvenient facts disappear, and language is twisted to suit the dictator's needs. Think Mao Tse Tung, Stalin, Bokassa, Hitler, Castro. Eventually, the dictator begins to believe that he can make reality bend to his will. Saddam Hussein, for example, seemed to feel he could repel U.S. forces with sheer bombast in press releases and televised speeches.

Turkmenistan's president for life, Saparmurat Niyazov, also known as Turkmenbashi or "Head of the Turkmen," is an equally vicious ruler, but thanks to his country's oil deposits, he happens to be in the Bush administration's good graces. Turkmenbashi has decreed that the calendar must change, the months being reduced in number and renamed -- one of them for his mother. This is sheer comic-opera buffoonery. But, of course, there's a less humorous side: terror. Disappearances. Disappeared people reappearing to confess strings of offenses against the Dear Leader and be publicly executed. And the less dramatic manifestations of fear, the way repression drains daily life of joy, damps down creativity and numbs intellect and conscience.

This is the territory Buntport Theater has chosen to explore in The 30th of Baydak. The play is not an attempt to dramatize contemporary life in Turkmenistan, despite the company's use of events, music and patriotic poetry from that country. The program cites the influence of Franz Kafka and Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal, and one senses a little of Vaclav Havel's dramatic writing in the central portrait of the meek, hapless everyman-worker. The character, Yousef, is surely a variant on Kafka's Josef K. His job is to excise the now-forbidden month names from the calendar. Daily, he sits at his desk, cutting away with an X-Acto knife. Every evening, he sweeps the little pile of names into his pocket and takes them home. Erik Edborg, with his sad-funny, purposely purposeless walk, plays this role to a tee.

Erin Rollman in The 30th of Baydak.
Erin Rollman in The 30th of Baydak.

Yousef is greeted daily by Ogul (Hannah Duggan), a chatty, hyper-patriotic woman, who hurries along, sheets of paper flying from the stack she carries for him. His co-worker, Farzad (Evan Weissman), works for the resistance and mocks Ogul behind her back. In the evening, Yousef consorts with his alter-ego, a camel, played by Brian Colonna. Czech literature and legend are full of surreal and magical symbols, from the story of the Golem to the strange beings inhabiting Jan Svankmajer's films. This camel seems to be Buntport's contribution, shaped in deference to Turkmenistan's desert environment. And he isn't the only magical element in Baydak.

Everything changes when a young woman, Meret, played by Erin Rollman, appears at Yousef's office. She's soft and sweet, and she places a small plant and an array of photographs -- including one of the ubiquitous Turkmenbashi -- on her desk, thus humanizing the environment. Because of the configuration of the cubicles, Yousef can't see her face, but he responds to her presence. In his home at night, he begins making her portrait using the fragments of paper bearing the cast-off month names. In a tiny way, his art-making challenges the deadening conformity of the system.

Buntport is tackling big issues here, and The 30th of Baydak looks more like the beginning of something resonant than a fully-realized work of theater. At the evening's end, I felt disappointed. But in the next few days, the production began to work on me. Its images returned, and I realized that, to a large extent, Baydak's strengths are visual and symbolic. The set is an extraordinary achievement: little suspended boxes of cubicles, all crammed at one end of the theater and reached by long, creaking catwalks. There's also highly evocative music. Edborg gives a magnetic, tightly controlled performance as Yousef, and Rollman is a wonderful Meret. She communicates the woman's soul wordlessly through her slow, careful movement, the rhythm with which she rubber-stamps papers, her small smile and the long, reluctant walk that takes her to the head office and the men waiting to interrogate her.

It's the script, which was developed collaboratively, that needs work. The dialogue doesn't have the necessary compressed significance, and Yousef's comments about art are insufficiently original. If the group had allowed itself to genuinely internalize the feeling of living in a totalitarian state, I don't believe resistance worker Farzad would have been so loud and stupid about his activities. People living under surveillance become cunning -- at least those who survive to adulthood. In short, the images in The 30th of Baydak are telling a deeper story than the script allows.

 
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