When: 21 - 26 January 2020
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Written by: Sofia Chapman
Performed by: Kirri Buchler, Sofia Chapman, Sasha Cuha, ad Alana Hunt
Musical direction/projections/sound design by: Sofia Chapman
Set and props by: Alana Hunt and Sofia Chapman
Chapman has form with the truly funny The Seat of Narcissa and The Top Secret Violin Case has a similar sense of energy and hilarity, although it probably doesn't quite sustain itself as well as the earlier show. They are calling it absurdist (in the tradition of Romanian Eugene Ionesco) but it isn't really. It is more a kind of Surreal Vaudeville. It doesn't quite have the cyclical hopelessness needed for Absurdist theatre.
In keeping with the theatrical style and also the show's place in Midsumma Festival, the Vardos trio (Chapman, Hunt, and Buchler) dress in male drag and focus this expose of communist Romania around the story of Ion Stoican (Hunt). Stoican was a violinist whose ambition probably exceeded his talent, but who was absolutely determined to get permission to record an album.
Romania, through the 60's to the 80's was under the control of Nicolae Ceaususca. A signatory of the Warsaw Pact, and thus a member of the USSR, Romania was essentially a dictatorship through rigged elections. Following the trend of the rest of the Soviet Union Romania fell under the hammer of Socialist Realism which disenfranchised any artists who did not create works which supported the regime. Thus, to record an album required the permission of the state which Stoican achieved by being a 'spycatcher'.
Vardos are a musical trio which engages in high energy music that causes your feet to tap, your hands to clap and your body to start dancing. The Top Secret Violin Case includes a number of examples which liven things up enormously.
It is music which led Chapman to this story. She and Hunt went to Romania to learn how to play Manele (a combination of Balkan and Romani music - also called Folclor Suburban) and they came out with a story which starts at the astounding People's Palace and winds it's way through poverty, starvation, oppression, censorship, and ferrets.
It is a serious topic - much like last year's Anna - but Chapman is choosing to follow the precepts of the music and tell a tale of sadness and rebellion with energy and an invitation to action. The Top Secret Violin Case is funny for the most part, but this only emphasises the horror living in those regimes must have been.
I feel as though The Top Secret Violin Case should have been more satisfying than it was. The dramaturgy is excellent, all of the production elements are superb, and the idea was strong. Perhaps it tried to do too much? Definitely one of the big problems is the Vardos women are not actors and haven't developed vocal projection techniques. Thus, I missed a lot of the early dialogue as my ears attuned and the song vocals where a bit overwhelmed by the instruments. (Not the last song though, which was the true climax of the evening).
In the end I suspect it really was covering too much territory. I didn't understand the white suit reference, or if the ferrets were some big analogy or just a joke. Cuha's storyline about learning the violin was never really consolidated well... Perhaps the problem is none of the characters were establish strongly enough? The focus of the play is on the politics and, to a certain extent, even the music takes a back seat which is a problem because that is the ensemble's strength.
Regardless, The Top Secret Violin Case is a fun frolic with moments of pure comedic genius. I also enjoyed how it made me intrigued to find out more about that period of Romania's history. The music is excellent as well!