Issue #45, 2014

The Moldavian Dream: Nicoleta Esinencu’s Engaged Theater
Iulia Popovici

I worked a week on the second floor. They paid me well. After I was done with the second floor, they told me to keep on working with them on the eighth floor, too. The guy was cool, he took some money for himself, but he gave some money to others as well. I stayed and in two months I finished up the eighth floor. . . . My back was aching; I had a muscle fever in my entire body. . . . I started coughing and told myself: I must get some milk, I inhaled too much dust, but one of the workers from there told me: You must have done better in school! (Nicoleta Esinencu, American Dream, 2014)


Tatiana Miron is a drama student and, for being able to go to the USA with the “Work and Travel“ program, her family borrows 3,000 $ from a sort of pawnbroker. The program turns out to be a scheme for exploiting the work of East-European youngsters and the return of the money is postponed for years, until Tatiana and her mother must accept illegal work on Moscow’s construction sites for paying their debts. This is the real story of the actor in American Dream, a show that continues a number of recurrent topics in Nicoleta Esinencu’s work – such as the mirage of the West and Russian imperialism – and, for the first time, the sensitive topic of the status of the abused East-European/Moldavian worker.

Something has changed in the last four years in Esinencu’s way of doing theater – a transfer, affecting not only topics, strongly linked to the modification of production formulas in her shows, a transfer from productions commissioned and performed internationally as “projects“ at European festivals to “repertoire“ production, within a stable space for creation (Laundry-Theater [Teatru-Spălătorie] in Chișinău) and a public for which this theater represents a reflection upon their own life.

The name of the playwright Nicoleta Esinencu owes its notoriety in the Romanian linguistic territory to a scandal about the national pavilion at the 2005 Venice Biennial, in whose catalogueone of the first plays by the Moldavian authoress, written during a residence in Germany, Fuck you,!, has been published. This is a text interrogating the identity obsessions Republic of Moldova – in particular the obsession with the “European vocation“, charging the Moldavian society with a post-communist and post-Soviet guilt complex – and contains, in nuce,the essence of theatrical mechanisms mobilized by Esinencu and of her recurrent concerns, from Occidentalism to the social position of women, passing through latent ethnic conflicts and the ambiguous relationship with Romanianness.

In the years thereafter, Esinencu and the actors’ collective with whom she was working have formed METT (Mobile European Theater Trailer), wherein they have produced a series of shows presented almost exclusively abroad – one exception to this rule being antidót (2008–2009), commissioned by Goethe Institut for their After the Fall project, an anniversary of 20 years since the dismantling of the Berlin Wall.antidót (created during the great crisis of Russian gas in 2008) avoided to approach directly the question of the great political seism of the year 1989 – felt less strongly in Chișinău –, and focused instead on a different topic to which she will return: intoxication. A metaphor that juxtaposes gas intoxication with informational intoxication, including that concerning great geopolitical movements, repositioning of empires and re-orientation of alliances – always at the expense of the social body, of the citizens.

Paradoxically, despite the fact that the shows were not presented in Moldova, what has been played had to do with social relations and civil rights, a constant concern from A (II) Rh+ (that spoke of nationalism and the “purity of blood“) and Mothers without Cunts (a monodrama about the co-optation of femininity) to (reproducing racist and xenophobic conversations about Romanians, Roma, Russians, Ukrainians, Arabs... picked from Moldavian internet forums). Although most spectators would not have a direct access to what was spoken on the stage, the language has always been at the very centre of the representational battle fought by Nicoleta Esinencu: her shows were the first to give a right to theatrical existence to the Moldavian “street language“, a mixture of Romanian dialect with many borrowed terms from Russian and street Russian, an idiom exiled from mainstream public spaces for being guilty of identity treason (in the eyes of those aspiring to Romanianness).

There has been a trigger in Nicoleta Esinencu’s decision for working in Chișinău – predictably, this came with the anti-government demonstrations from the capital of Moldova in April 2009, which have led, in the end, to early elections and radical political changes. No doubt, 7th of April (the day when conflicts between the protestors and the police have turned violent, culminating in setting the Parliament into fire) still functions for many as an inaugural moment of a new world. However, it is precisely the instant turning of this moment into a myth, a moment perceived as the anticommunist revolution that Moldova avoided in the 1990s (the former Soviet republic separated from the USSR through a decision of the Parliament, and the outbursts following the Transnistrian war have delayed sine die“the trial of communism“), that has generated for a number of artists (not only for Esinencu, but also for the visual artist Pavel Brăila, for instance) a reaction of opposition.

Among Esinencu’s productions, Footage is the one in which addressability operates in a most assumedly different way: it is not (only) an acid commentary on the revolution-to-be-televised and on the production controlled by images as substitutes for reality, it is (especially) an instant reaction and a warning (reiterating the main topic of antidót)about the manipulative mechanisms mobilized during the spectacle. Practically, Footage was the last collaboration between Nicoleta Esinenscu and some of the actors with whom she had worked previously. The political changes following April 2009 resulted, at Chișinău, in the emergence of alternative, non-institutional art spaces and in the multiplication of independent theatrical initiatives (given their total lack before, the existence of such kickoffs is quite remarkable, despite their manifestations or frequency in the country). This has been the complicated cocktail leading to the opening of the Laundry-Theater. An artist run space in the basement of the Nufărul Laundry in Chișinău, the theater is a complex project dedicated to social-political art and regional collaborations, which brought to Moldova artists from Romania, Poland, Germany...


There is an obvious relationship between Nicoleta Esinencu’s long independent artistic experience and the diversification of the independent theater landscape in Chișinău. In fact, all practitioners of the current Moldavian alternative have worked, at different moments, with her – from Mihai Fusu (who was the teacher of some of the actors and with whom Esinencu co-authored, together with writer Dumitru Crudu, her first play, The Seventh Whorehouse, which is a documentary) to Luminița Țîcu (who was a constant presence in the METT shows before 2009). This happens because the Moldavian author’s artistic language and social-political engagement marks a powerful break with traditions not only from Chișinău, but also from Romania (to which the Moldavian scene started to refer almost exclusively after 1991).

Esinencu’s type of performative art intersects a whole series of current emergent practices – it is permeated by performance art (the identity of the actors is never dissolved in that of the characters, the logic of acting being replaced by that of representation), it proposes collaborative work methods, without being what is called a devised theater (the text never results from improvisations by the performers), and the playwright always directs his or her texts (an increasingly widespread symptom, from the German Rene Pollesch to the Hispano-Argentinean Rodrigo García).

This in spite of the fact that Nicoleta Esinencu does not consider herself a director: “I have never wanted to do directing and I am not doing this now either. I have always made things in collaboration with actors and visual artists. . . . I never think about how to stage a text, for me it is more important what I want to say“, she declares in a 2013 interview for the French magazine Le Bruit du monde. Similarly to the performative dimension of her stage creations (which one can find, for instance, at Rodrigo García), this positioning of the playwright as a theater-maker,“show maker“, is part of a complex process that redefines the division of labor in theater. This, in Chișinău, comes in the wake of the ambiguous status of the actors (all the more that in Moldova there are no stage directing schools, and usually directors are, by education, actors): outside of the system of public theaters nobody can survive by doing only this art. For some, a few really, university education is a starting point, for others the diversity of occupations goes from hand-made production to moderating TV shows.

The collaborative character of the Laundry-Theater supposes, therefore, not only artistic cooperation, but also the cooperative administration of a multifunctional space: actors are not only stage designers, too, but also light and sound technicians, DJs, party hosts and event organizers. It is a model that goes completely against the grain of the classic position of the artist in Eastern-Europe, namely that of the artist-as-a-genius and that of art as a socially recognized and publicly supported privilege.

In American Dream, ready-made texts (advertising materials of the “Work and Travel“ program, etc.), combined by Esinencu in her recurrent playwright strategy with manipulated documentary materials, and reproduced sometimes in a verbatim manner, are added to personal storytelling – which she explored for the first time in Dear Moldova, Can We Kiss Just a Little?, a show with non-actors/“experts of everyday life“, created together with the German director Jessica Glause. If Dear Moldova... is a special case – the work with non-actors supposing the staging of their direct experience (connected here to what it means to be gay, to have gay parents or children in the Republic of Moldova) –, this form of storytelling has appeared for the first time at the Laundry-Theater in the show of an invited artist (Fiction by Wojtek Ziemilski), building on the experience of actor Ion Borș, who was a truck-driver between Moldova and Italy.

The representation of actors not only as exponents of a voice belonging to invisible citizens, as bearers of the untold stories of those who have no power, but also as citizens themselves, with a life experience typical for the Moldavian social context, continues an artistic project based on the ability of theater to offer ways of societal emancipation. For which it does not matter that it lives in the basement of a laundry in Chișinău.

Translated by Alexandru Polgár