By: Olivia Chenier
The Romeo Initiative was the first show since the start of the pandemic at TheatreUNB, and it breathed life back into the company. The Romeo Initiative was written by playwright Trina Davies, and was directed by 4th year UNB Drama major Julianne Richard.
It’s 1970 in West Germany. Karin Maynard, a mousey secretary, falls in love with a travelling doctor Markus, a Stasi spy. They have awkward but endearing interactions and long-distance longing letters until suddenly confidential files are missing from Karin’s office, and her boss’s mistress, Lena, turns her into police custody as the prime suspect.
Then the audience watches a retelling of the events, with all the tiny details and big twists revealed. The meetings of the “Romeo” agent, Markus, divulge the true intentions of seducing single women for intelligence to give to the East German secret police, the Stasi. We watch Markus gaslighting Karin, then Markus cheating on Karin with Lena, since the Stasi believed Karin wasn’t going to cough up the files. Both Lena and Karin pass along secrets from the financial company through the suave spy.
The conclusion involves Karin being let out on good behaviour into a low-income apartment. When Karin invites Lena to come over after the boss’s funeral, Lena tells Karin she is now married. The newlywed husband becomes impatient while waiting for Lena at the apartment, and lo and behold, it’s Markus who knocks and enters. Karin is told that her marriage with Markus was a sham, and those in attendance at their wedding were actually the Stasi staff. Then it is revealed that Karin was given a deal; if she wore a wire and caught Markus admitting his role, she would be set free.
I went to this play with my partner, who was going for his drama class. He is a history student and saw a whole other side of this play, gasping over the twist and contemplating if any of my exes coerced me to share secrets. After gushing over every aspect of the play on the walk back up the hill, he mentions to me, “I also liked the real-life references to Stasi practices.” This was beyond me, but I had to know more. I went home and got right to researching connections.
This Romeo initiative itself is not beyond the Stasi. They had modest funds and up to 170 000 civilian informants in contact with the Ministry for State Security. Agents’ most extraordinary skills were exploiting the psychology of secretaries targeted and psychologically profiled to figure out their perfect partner. In the 1950s, every officer of Markus Wolf’s division within West Germany had orders to look for likely female targets. The psychological profiles of women showed a preference for the friendly vacationer or helpful neighbour types of the Stasi Romeos. In the 1960s, it launched a Romeo recruitment drive for handsome single men in East Germany.
There is a scene where after intercourse with Karin, Markus slyly grabs a jar from his briefcase and reaches over to her panties, picking them up with the tip of his pen. He is caught but inevitably keeps them. This is just pervy, right? No, the Stasi would break into homes to get used undergarments or get people to sit on a chair with a cloth on it during interrogations. These were “smell samples” kept for dogs to hunt down German citizens for whatever reason they would need to. I guess it’s important to pick up dirty laundry.
One of the known higher-ups of the Stasi was Markus Wolf, which was an interesting choice of name for the agent. He remarkably successfully penetrated West German citizens’ government and business circles with spies. The Markus in the play was revealed to actually be named Karl, so it’s not THE Markus Wolf, but the name Karl is reminiscent of one of the more well-known Romeos — Karl-Heinz Schmidt. He was a Stasi spy who seduced a West German student Gabriele Gast, and ultimately revealed to the deeply in love Gast his real name and that he was a member of the Stasi; if she didn’t comply with joining him, they wouldn’t see each other again. She would later be trained in creating spy cameras and cryptology for the Stasi.
The actors were all very fitting for their roles. Kelly McAllister, who played Karin, had a gullibly hopeful tone with discomfiture that bounced well off her crush, very expressive on the stage. Markus, played by David Charters, perfected the very domestic old-timey articulation you would expect to see in a genuine ’70s film. The shift from the ungainly movement before the intermission to the confident strides and stances on the stand showed a completely new man. Lena, played by Naomi McGowan, was THAT bitch. The snippy and erratic overreactions to get what she wanted were so lovable; as the play continues, insecurity and desperation seep into Lena’s actions.
The lighting was satisfying, utilizing the stage design with a vast window used to project weather, moody lighting, and even someone dancing, which had a lighthearted feel, between prop transitions. The set of Karin’s original home must have been caressed with prop hunting and grandma’s blanket; it really transported the audience to that setting. The entire experience really did feel transportational, especially once I had done research on the Stasi and found out more about their practices. All in all, it was a good show.