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POLITICAL statements in the form of social realism sometimes tend toward the heavy-handed; once made, the author's point is frequently pounded into the audience until the art form loses any claim to verisimilitude. In an effort to avoid this trap--and Stalin's censors, since The Dragon was written in the Soviet Union in 1943--Yevgeny Schwarz has turned to allegory, drawing on the Russian folk tradition to disguise a commentary on his country. Dragons, heroes, talking animals and flying carpets people his work, giving his play an outward simplicity that underlines his final statement.
Schwarz proffers a foreshortened view of Soviet history. Lancelot, professional savior, arrives in a town that has been under the rule of a dragon for the past 400 years, a dragon that demands yearly tribute in the shape of a maiden. Undaunted by the townspeople's desire for peace and quiet ("So long as he's here," one says, no other dragon would dare to touch us"), Lancelot challenges and kills the dragon. But Lancelot is severely wounded in the fight, and while he leaves the town for a year to heal his injuries the opportunistic mayor and his son replace the dragon as dictators. Finally, in the happy ending so inevitable in a fairy tale. Lancelot returns, stripping the dictators of their powers, wedding the beautiful maiden he saved from the dragon's clutches and promising to re-educate the townspeople so they can enjoy a humane and democratic government. "The dragon," Lancelot says, "must be killed in each and every one of them...And after all our trials and tribulations, we're going to be happy, very happy at last."
The historical parallels are obvious. Lenin's overthrow of the 400-year-old tsardom was not enough, Schwarz seems to say; he must come back again to erase the habit of servility from his people's souls. Only a Lancelot, he implies, can end the Russian people's submission to dictators who promise them peace and quiet.
Fortunately Schwarz has camouflaged his theme behind humor and fantasy, so The Dragon remains lighthearted throughout. He pokes fun at the apathetic townsfolk who are unwilling to trade their dragon-induced peace for freedom, but it is a gentle sarcasm, tinged with an acceptance of human nature. As the mild-mannered gardener, who has trained his snapdragons to eulogize the successive dictators, says, "You know, when all is said and done, people need very careful treatment."
The students of Slavic 197, "Survey of Russian Drama," who did much of the work for this production of The Dragon, have emphasized the play's fairy-tale qualities. The backdrop shines a luminescent blue, with hints of a leafy forest in the foreground and a decidedly Russian castle, topped with domes, in the back. The sets are appropriately simple: a cottage hearth, a wooden throne, a table set for a peasant feast. The costumes fit the set, with most of the characters dressed in traditional Russian style, and the dragon, in human form, wearing a military costume.
On the whole, the acting in The Dragon is excellent. Jonathan Epstein, as Lancelot, is properly virtuous, if a bit given to pregnant pauses between his lines. The only time the three-hour show really drags badly is during his pseudo-death scene, which lasts a long 15 minutes instead of five or ten. But perhaps that's how Lancelot should be: a little too virtuous to avoid those long and tedious soliloquies. It isn't easy, after all, to make completely believable a character who tells the maiden he has not seen in a year that he came back a month before in his invisible hat, early in the morning. "I kissed you very softly so as not to wake you up," he says.
The two actors who play the dictators are more impressive. Alexander Wells, as the three-headed dragon, changes his character slightly each time he changes faces. First as a self-satisfied military officer, then as cowardly tyrant, and finally as a simpering, giggling despot who knows he has crippled the souls of his people, Wells is a perfect villain. David Reiffel is equally good in his role as the not-quite-sane mayor, who switches mental illnesses to suit the moment. Charles Weinstein, as the mayor's conniving son who gives up his fiancee to the dragon in return for a position as private secretary, may overdo his sliminess somewhat; but fairy tales deal in black-and-white characters, and outrageously villanous villains are funnier than more complex ones. And, since every fairy tale must have a heroine, Elsa is pure, chaste and loving. Cindy Cardon is adequate in the role, although she sometimes adds a touch of bitchiness that conflicts oddly with the virtue she is supposed to represent.
IN TRUE fairy tale style, The Dragon relies on the dynamics of a few major characters against the background of simple but peace-loving folk. With a few exceptions, the members of the supporting cast play their unassuming roles well without detracting from the heroic figures of the leads.
Its simplicity gives Schwarz's play its charm; but a simplistic world peopled by heroes and heroines is flawed as a political statement. We are given a happy marriage at the end, but we never see the townspeople transformed. And saying "now let's have the wedding after all, because happiness makes people beautiful," sounds unconvincing. By choosing the allegory, Schwarz has eliminated the possibility of offering his audience a convincing ending. He leaves us still waiting for a solution to problems in the real world, where there are very few Lancelots to show the way to happiness.
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