Theater of Pain | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Theater of Pain 

A Romanian director still feels the weight of the Iron Curtain

By Adam Langer

Just a few nights before the opening of Slawomir Mrozek's Karol the director, Val Paraskiv, is galloping around the makeshift rehearsal space on the southwest side looking for the stem of an umbrella. "Well, where did you put it?" he asks one of the actors in his rich Romanian accent. "Where did you put it the last?"

"Normally I just hang it up on the stage," says David DeWoskin.

"Last time before you left, when did you get dressed? Did you have the umbrella with you then?"

"I don't remember."

Another actor, Daniel Willens, fusses with the white sheet that's draped over his body as an ersatz toga.

"What is the matter?" Paraskiv asks him. "It's not comfortable?"

"Oh, it's comfortable," Willens says. "I'm just not used to having my upper thigh exposed. I look like I'm working at Chippendale's."

"Is OK though, no?"

"Sure, sure. It's OK."

"Twenty seconds till we begin," says Paraskiv's wife, Claudia, who's clutching a watch.

The stage manager, Edward Garner, emerges from behind the set. "I just want to let everyone know before the show begins that if anyone wants me to hang on to their wallets during the show so they don't get stolen--"

"Oh God, stealing?" Paraskiv wails. "Who steals? We are in a theater--we are not in the streets."

"Ten seconds," Claudia Paraskiv says.

"I can't find the umbrella anywhere," says DeWoskin. "We'll have to improvise something."

"All right, all right," Paraskiv says, almost sadly. "We improvise something. We can adapt ourselves. We can adapt ourselves to anything. I can adapt myself to anything. Let's go. Are we ready to go?"

Paraskiv has had to adapt a lot since the 70s and 80s, when he was a movie star and one of the most sought after directors in Romania. As a director with Bucharest's famed Nottara Theater, he had a highly trained company of actors, designers, ironworkers, woodworkers, and seamstresses at his beck and call. Now he's barely able to scrape together enough money to put up the one-act Karol for the Bailiwick Director's Festival, and he's had to do all the intricate set and costume design and construction himself out of cardboard and scraps of material. "It's a new way of working," he says. "I don't care about my past. I'm almost thinking not at all about what I did in Romania. I'm just thinking about what I have to do for now."

Val Paraskiv was born in 1942 in Bucharest. His mother died when he was six months old, and his father died in World War II, so he was brought up by a great-uncle. As a Young Pioneer in the communist party he developed an affinity for drama. He graduated with a master's in theater acting from the highly competitive Institute of Theatrical and Cinematographical Arts in 1963 and later returned for a master's in theater directing. Every graduate of the institute was required to work for three years outside of Bucharest before being considered by one of the city's major theaters, but Paraskiv immediately got a position at the Nottara--a first in the school's history.

He directed plays in a manner that was often surrealistic and vaguely critical of the communist establishment, and his productions played to sold-out houses. But he also ran afoul of government higher-ups.

The first play he directed for the Nottara, The Prodigal Son's Returning, by Russian playwright Alexander Vampilov, concerns two young men from Moscow who meet two young women in a restaurant and accompany them home. The women refuse to put them up for the night, and they're left out in the cold, 20 miles from Moscow, where they're treated like vagabonds and thieves. But one of the men winds up finding shelter in the home of a violinist by claiming to be the man's long-lost son, and the play ends happily.

Paraskiv turned the play on its head by making the happy ending a figment of the imagination of one of the young men as he freezes to death. "I wanted to treat this story with a little more cruelty," he says. "These two guys try to find a shelter they will not find. Even though it originally ended happily, I thought that it couldn't be. Realistically speaking, it couldn't have happened that way."

He'd been rehearsing the play for seven months and was ready to open when a member of the secret police insisted that he change his approach. He agreed to restage the play in a subtler manner, and to make sure he did, an officer of the secret police attended every one of his rehearsals from then on.

Paraskiv continued to direct at the Nottara and to pursue a career as a film actor, performing in more than 20 feature films. But he had the distinct impression that he was under suspicion. "It became a sort of policy to squeeze me, to marginalize me. The people in charge of censorship, the establishment, they wanted theater to speak about official policy and ideology. If you wanted to talk about the existence of human beings in general, it wasn't acceptable. I didn't ever explicitly attack the system, but I wanted to be very sincere in depicting society--and because of that, they wanted to destroy me. We have a kind of joke in Romania. We say, 'This guy must be destroyed right now when he is a samovar. Don't let him become a locomotive.'"

His productions were constantly beset by difficulties, Paraskiv says. He'd be directing a show, and shortly before the opening half of his cast would be taken away and sent to perform in another city. The artistic directors of the theater would badger him to have a production ready, but then they would make sure that the sets and costumes weren't there on time. Even when he tried to do everything himself they thwarted him; they even dismantled a revolving set that he'd spent his own money to build. The idea, he says, was to force him to quit and save the theater the bad publicity that would follow firing a celebrated actor and director. The last straw came when he was trying to adjust the lighting for one of his shows. The administrative director told him that it was too dark and he'd either have to turn the lights back up or resign. Paraskiv resigned. "That's what they wanted me to do for a long time," he says.

For seven years Paraskiv couldn't find work in Romania. From time to time he'd act in films directed by friends, but he'd have to wear makeup that completely disguised him and couldn't use his real name. "Very soon I noticed that I couldn't be employed even as a simple worker. All the doors were closed to me. Everybody knew about this thing in the theatrical community, but nobody would solve the problem. I was one of the best, and I couldn't find a place to be employed."

Paraskiv sent a letter to the communist party headquarters, resigning as a member, and shortly thereafter a security patrol appeared in front of his house. "I was ready to die," he says. "I was ready to be shot."

He applied for an exit visa and received one in 20 days, even though it took many of his fellow countrymen years to get one. He says he was able to leave so quickly only because of his stature as an actor and director.

He arrived in Chicago in 1990 as a political refugee with Claudia, who'd worked for many years in the movie business as a script supervisor, and with his son, who's now 11. He studied English at Truman College and received an associate's degree in fine arts, while his wife enrolled in Columbia College's film program to get a bachelor's degree.

In the past few years Paraskiv has had only one directing assignment aside from the current Bailiwick production, a production at the Blue Rider Theatre of Howard Brenton's Christie in Love, which garnered good notices and played to virtually empty houses. "It was a very big shock," he says. "I was accustomed to having my theaters performing for full houses all the time for ten years, and suddenly all my work fell down. I would have done something else, but I didn't have the opportunity or the time. Besides Claudia was a student at Columbia. She was there all day long, and who could take care of my son, who was four years old? I had to do that. I couldn't move. I was stuck. I was chained. I couldn't do anything. I needed to explode, to jump. But it's OK, it's OK. It's another life."

Paraskiv has a knowledge of art and theater history and theory that most directors only dream of. At 55, he's the most energetic and tireless person involved with his production. His directing style is precise, and he knows every single gesture and line reading he wants out of his actors and can embody each character with a mere hunch of the shoulders, vocal inflection, or twitch of his face. When an actor seems uncertain of how to fall to his knees in an emotional scene, Paraskiv demonstrates it over and over, knees slamming again and again into the concrete without a word of complaint.

Mrozek's Karol is a surrealistic satire that takes place in an eye doctor's office, where a young man takes his visually impaired grandfather to get an eye test and a pair of glasses so that he can shoot his lifelong enemy. Devilishly clever and maddeningly circular in its plotting, the play manages in its scant 40 minutes to entertainingly tackle issues of class conflict, man's blindness to human suffering, and the perversity of justice. Paraskiv's set pieces and props are nothing short of brilliant. With scraps of cardboard and paint, he's created a fascinating, fanciful homage to the works of Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte. Mrozek's script calls for only a cardboard box filled with glasses and a sofa, but Paraskiv has littered the set with wittily designed objects--an eye-testing machine that turns into an absurdly large camera, an owl, a spiderweb, and an enormous blinking eye that's partially obscured by barbed wire. At the show's end the eye opens for a moment and then closes.

"I wouldn't like to bring on the stage any kind of elements or things which exist in the real life--like a table, like a chair or a can," says Paraskiv. "Everything must be adapted, must be created just for the stage. The stage is a reflection of the reality, not a translation. I don't take anything from real life. I cannot stand to see an object that is from reality, which people are accustomed to. The stage is a sacred place. The theater must have its own territory to talk with its own meanings, which are the reflections of reality. Everything put on the stage must be an object of art. This is my desire. It's not a rule, but it is my understanding of the theater."

But Paraskiv is up against the realities of the Chicago theater scene. He's employing decent but inexperienced young actors who've missed much of Mrozek's wit and make the production seem heavy-handed. And his play is on a program with two interminable, amateurishly written one-acts. Paraskiv is never less than gracious when discussing his cast or the other works on the program, but part of him is clearly frustrated that after years of playing to sold-out houses, he gets only two performances on an off night in a venue that's comparatively small.

"What can I say?" he asks. "I left psychological stress, and I came to another psychological stress. My wife graduated Columbia, but she can't find a job. She has a part-time job in a photo lab. It's miserable work for her. She worked in film before. It's very stressful for her, and we still don't have money. We receive food stamps. It's OK. We can live. I am very pleased with my apartment and my view, but it's sad that I can't do my work. But I cannot do anything else--just this profession. I am 55. I worked almost all my life in theater and performing arts. That is what I know to do. This is my life. This is my manner of existence. What can I do? Go to Dominick's and put groceries in bags? It's not a problem of physical work, but psychologically it's difficult. But why should I think about it? It's another life. I cannot change anything. I have to look in front of me. I have to fight hard to make a bridge, to get out, to be able just to have a possibility to work. If somebody will pay me just a little, just to survive decently, I am ready to do everything. I am ready to be a slave. Yes, it's frustrating, but what can I do? Should I talk about my crises? My psychological stress? No, this is my destiny. My destiny is here, and I have to fulfill it." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Val Paraskiv photo by Randy Tunnell.

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