Belgrade Drama Theatre, premiere 5th November 2022
Susan Lee Alvin, the fictional protagonist of Slobodan Obradović’s comedy Yankee Rose is loosely inspired by Anna Nicole Smith, a woman who became a public figure in the1990s and early 2000s less for what she did or who she was than who she married – famous for being famous.
The play has been waiting to have its first production for more than ten years. Stories involving the tragic fates of celebrities and manipulation by the media haven’t attracted much attention in Serbian theatre circles. Now Serbian theatre director Miloš Lolić has decided to take on the play for his debut at the Belgrade Drama Theatre which sees him working with his mother, the well-known actress Danica Maksimović.
The play, like the media, lures us into a trap. The object of our interest is an illusion, a fictitious person without any talent in her own right. However, her life story speaks to the values of capitalist and patriarchal America. She grew up in poverty with a single mother, survived sexual harassment, a failed first marriage, followed by a second marriage to a much older man, a millionaire, gaining money, notoriety and an addiction problem along the way.
Lolić stages Yankee Rose as a musical. Nevena Glušica has composed a melodic soundtrack and written songs that perfectly fit Obradović’s text. The directorial style is complemented by ironic textual play. There are lavish costumes (by Maria Marković Milojev), exaggerated make-up, caricatured puppets (by Zorana Milošaković-Tasić) and a lot of confetti.
What makes Yankee Rose so special, besides the great music, is its well-thought-out details. There is no scenography. Instead, the actors tell us right at the beginning that there is hay on the floor and colourful stripes on the walls. The audience is invited to pretend to see something that doesn’t exist and to experience it as a fact.
The emptiness becomes an effect that constitutes reality. Shortly afterwards, the main character enters the scene and starts laughing long and forcefully for no reason at all. This goes on until the audience itself joins in the laughter. We all laugh for no reason. Then we hear her singing and playing the banjo, but her hand and the frets of the instrument are controlled by the musicians. Everything about her is deception, a pretence that her existence is filled with meaning.
Her image is a mask that hides the emptiness of the character. That is why she wears thick layers of make-up, a lush blonde wig and prosthetics that highlight her physical attributes. Not for a single moment, not even during childbirth, does she remove this mask. This subtle constant also has an important function in the director’s vision. There is no true, authentic personality hidden under the mask of a public figure. She’s completely identified with her mask. That is her truth. She’s on the run from poverty, violence and neglect and via this path of survival, a person is born who is endowed with qualities that fit well into modern society.
However, she isn’t just created from these basic instincts. When she leaves her first husband, she says that she’s now a divorced and practical woman, a single mother and thus practically a feminist. She’s willing to create an image that best fits the circumstances. Susan Lee Alvin isn’t a heroine who thinks and fights for a better world, but an ordinary person struggling to attain a privileged position in a capitalist, patriarchal society.
Lolić gives the impression of refusing to judge his characters. From time to time, the figure of Suzanne’s rival (Iva Ilinčić) emerges to build her image on opposite foundations: she’s modest, cares for others and writes poetry for children. After a moment of media attention, this rival leaves the scene in silence for an unusually long time. The implication is clear – like Susan, she’s trying to maintain her place on the public stage, but chooses slightly different means. Lolić doesn’t look at the characters in his play from above, but at eye-level, exploring what makes them the way they are.
Danica Maksimović plays this self-absorbed heroine with a constant smile on her face. It is a strong theatrical performance. She dominates every scenes, despite having the complex task of communicating on several levels: directly with the audience, with the other characters and with the four-member chorus. During this two-hour production, she confidently leads a large and very well-coordinated ensemble who play a number of characters from Susan’s life, as well as singing, playing instruments and operating puppets.
The media are the main target of this production. They are represented by grotesque puppets; among several other characters, we are presented with Oprah Winfrey as global gossip, Larry King as a sensationalist and Tom Cruise as an omniscient sage. The media turns trivialities into important news and such a society of spectacle produces pathologically twisted children. Susan Lee Alvin has a son (Amar Ćorović) who grows up in a psychologically unhealthy environment and develops an obsessive relationship with his mother, whose touch arouses him sexually. He represents a pessimistic image of the new generation of the American dream. If his mother is a symptom of modern society, then her son, is it’s the disease in its terminal stage.
Yankee Rose is an extremely serious production wrapped in opulent glamour and laced with seductive irony. It’s one of the most directorially developed productions of the current Belgrade Drama Theatre repertoire and artistically one of the most well-realised projects this theatre has produced recently.
Photos by Dragana Udovičić
Direction and scenography: Miloš Lolić//Costumes: Maria Marković Milojev//Composition and lyrics: Nevena Glušica//Lighting design: Srđan Jovanović
Cast: Danica Maksimović, Ivana Nikolić, Iva Ilinčić, Ivana Vukmirović, Sara Ristić, Milan Čučilović, Luka Grbić, Ivan Zablaćanski, Amar Ćorović, Dimitrije Cincar – Kostić, Džonatan Mastor Lumbila, Mladen Lukić, Miloš Jakovljević
For tickets and further information visit: BDP.rs
Further reading: Frank Castorf’s The Divine Comedy review – BDP, Belgrade (seestage.org)