Stalin-era play gets Gangnam treatment

by Jordan Green

John Dillon, an adjunct faculty member at UNC School of the Arts, asked his Studio 3 drama students to develop improv ensemble performances around the monster South Korean pop hit “Gangnam Style” as a way to access the Stalin-era play The Dragon.

Written by Soviet playwright Yevgeny Shvarts, the play was performed once in Leningrad and once in Moscow during World War II before being smothered into obscurity by the communist state apparatus. In 1987, actor and playwright Amlin Gray adapted the script for English-speaking audiences. The junior class students in Studio 3 will perform the play in Winston-Salem in April.

As Dillon conferred with a group of students before the beginning of class on a recent Friday, Gray observed from a chair at the opposite end of the floor in an airy rehearsal space at Performance Place.

“His censors may have thought that the play was not about Stalin,” Gray told a publicist and reporter. “I doubt much of the regular population failed to notice the similarities between Stalin and the dragon, which are fairly marked.”

A subversive fairytale, the storyline revolves around a dragon that has ruled a town for 400 years to the extent that townspeople have come to regard it benevolently despite the fact that it annually demands a young girl in sacrifice, and around a hero, Lancelot, who comes to town to slay the dragon.

Gray joined the class last week to make some final adjustments to the script. He explained that, customarily, the playwright — or adaptor, in his case — does not directly interact with the actors lest they be confused by conflicting cues, but the playwright might vigorously argue a point with the director.

But a female student with a knack for baking briefly ventured over to greet Gray while he spoke with Dillon. Gray mentioned that the student would be baking “poor little martyr pastries” for the play. In the story, the townspeople are allowed a brief mourning period involving pastries resembling the sacrificed girls.

Dillon instructed the students to break into four groups to come up with Gangnam-style interpretations of a scene in which the townspeo plerealize the dragon is dead. The purpose of the exercise, Dillon explained, was to get the students to approach the play as an ensemble as opposed to thinking only about their individual roles.

In less than an hour, the students reconvened and the four groups performed for each other.

One group used a cluster of wooden boxes with a beat-master pounding out the rhythm of “Gangnam Style” by stomping his feet and striking a tennis shoe against the side of the box while others polevaulted across the floor. In the second performance, one of the actors wriggled on the floor beneath one of his colleague’s arched legs in a nod to pop star PSY’s performance in the “Gangnam Style” video, and then the ensemble tossed a cloth ball as a substitute for the dragon’s head. Another group vocalized the whistling falling bomb that features in “Gangnam Style” and has been a pop-music staple since the Gap Band heated up the dance floor in 1982. But in this case the projectile was an imaginary dragon’s head dropping to the ground.

They danced — arms akimbo and legs astride, of course — and rapped lines from Gray’s adaptation of The Dragon.

“We’ve been to lied to since we were kids,” one actor exulted.

“Now the dragon’s dead, so we can live.”

Another, following a break in the beat, mimicked PSY’s staccato command, declaring, “Long live the dragon killer.”

After a round of critiques, Dillon dispatched the four groups to refine their performances.

“Here’s something that is part of their culture,” he said, explaining the choice of “Gangnam Style” as a rehearsal device. “It’s this kind of joyful outburst that they can relate to.”

The song is also thematically related to the scene, Dillon said. “When the dragon dies, all order breaks down,” he said. “The play asks the question: If you kill the tyrant, have you killed the tyranny? I mean, look at Egypt today.”

The themes of The Dragon might be timeless, but there’s no guarantee that “Gangnam Style” will be part of it when the students perform the play in April.