While the state incarcerates and ignores the insane, art has often treated them as they were generally treated in the Middle Ages. According to Michel Foucault's groundbreaking Madness and Civilization, before the advent of the Age of Reason, the mad were viewed as fools; idiot or criminal, they nonetheless possessed a kind of secret knowledge of a world unbound by reason and morality.
Shakespeare's Fool in King Lear, Cervantes' Don Quixote and Ken Kesey's Randall P. MacMurtry are three popular examples. Add to this list Fetisov, the heroic colonel in Bulgarian playwright Hristo Boytchev's farce, The Colonel Bird.
Set against the backdrop of the Balkan wars of the 1990s, Boytchev's farce begins in a decrepit monastery in an isolated mountain region. Even the nuns have fled, leaving behind six charges in various states of madness. A supposed doctor (a suitably wry Chris McCool) whose madness truly is chemical—he's a junkie—is assigned to work with the patients.
What truly sets things into motion is the discovery of dozens of United Nations humanitarian-aid boxes mistakenly dropped in the vicinity of the monastery. Among the candy bars and powdered milk are genuine-issue United Nations peacekeeping uniforms. This discovery transforms a previously catatonic patient, a former Russian colonel (a commanding Carl Reggiardo), into a man possessed of firm conviction and noble aspirations. He declares the monastery a free state. Of course, he's absolutely nuts. But he's gloriously nuts. The strength of his vision is potent enough to liberate and motivate his fellow patients into a quixotic quest across the war-ravaged Balkans in order to meet their destinies as free men and women in the so-called free West.
It's a fascinating setup that never quite realizes its potential. The play suffers from structural deficiencies: halfway through, the engaging doctor becomes a dramatic afterthought. Still, it's a provocative, entertaining piece of theater with plenty to occupy the brain.
Director Adrian Giurgea supplies an intriguing vision in this California Repertory production. The Edison Theatre is laid out with seats on either side of the space; the action takes place in the middle. This forces the audience to look down on the action, creating an experience like something out of a Roman gladiator fight. (Insert appropriate props here for set designer Walid Ameer and light designer Michael Schrupp.)
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Giurgea captures a gloomy, foreboding tone that makes the play's darkly ironic humor funnier. Giurgea also elicits strong performances from the talented ensemble, all of whom have ample moments to shine.
The honest performances and firm direction add to the mix in this already rich play. It may take a long time to really get going, but The Colonel Bird offers an often fascinating ride that carries the viewer to places all too often dismissed by most playwrights —including our most basic concepts of sanity. Like others in this genre of madness, Boytchev's play seems to reject a firm line between sanity and insanity. Set against the backdrop of war, his characters' idealistic quest for community with the larger "sane" world outside is all the more poignant. How can any civilization that regularly engages in the irrational abomination of war call a person insane when his only crime is hiding beneath a bed because he's afraid he'll be stepped on? The answer, of course, is that in good conscience, it can't. The sad reality is that it does.
It's all about power, as Foucault argued. And power is what these abandoned and forgotten patients lack—until their crazy colonel gives it to them by convincing them that the world they inhabit, while not accessible to the so-called sane, is just as valid, just as real and just as valuable. And ultimately and sadly, just as impossible to live in peacefully.
COLONEL BIRD BY CALifornia REPertory AT THE EDISON THEATRE, 213 E. BROADWAY, LONG BEACH, (562) 432-1818. WED.-SAT., 8 P.M.; SAT., NOV. 11 & 18, 2 P.M. THROUGH NOV. 18. $20.