The Romeo Initiative is the kind of play that could really mess with your mind.
Inspired by true stories from Germany during the Cold War, it explores the manufacturing of emotion and what love is.
Trina Davies’ award-winning play kicks off Touchstone Theatre’s 2013-14 season with a preview Nov. 14.
The Romeo Initiative starts out as a romantic comedy and then morphs into a seductive spy thriller that examines the barriers erected by lovers and external circumstances.
For Davies, it all started with a documentary she and her father caught on TV. They watched a woman from former West Germany being interviewed about having been duped into love and sharing secrets from her work by an East German Stasi agent.
“She was crying, she was screaming about wanting to know why this had happened to her,” Davies said.
Davies said her father called the woman delusional for wasting her emotional energy on an artificial situation. “I took exception to that because it seemed to me anyone who had been in a relationship that didn’t work out and where there may have been some deception, will revision that relationship and say: What was going on? What didn’t I see? What are the different sides of the story?” Davies said. “That’s a natural human response to that situation.”
Davies began researching the “Romeo” program undertaken by the East German secret police during the Cold War. She learned agents would watch women, often government secretaries, sometimes for two years to figure out her version of the perfect man.
“For instance, if the person had daddy issues, they’d get someone who resembled their father and send them,” Davies said.
In Bonn, the capital of West Germany, women dramatically outnumbered German men, so they typically were thrilled to be pursued by seemingly suitable men. The man of her dreams would suddenly appear, sweep her offer her feet, supposedly commit to her and slowly, over time, start asking to see documents from her work.
Davies discovered the same tactics didn’t work as well when the genders were reversed. Men seduced by female agents were less willing to share information or be blackmailed.
After the Berlin Wall crumbled and government documents exposed, women wooed by Romeos were tried for espionage and often handed suspended sentences. The Romeos didn’t have to appear before the courts. They had amnesty because they had been working for the state.
No one knows how many women were deceived by Stasi agents during the Cold War but about 40 women were prosecuted for espionage in West Germany as a result of their romantic relationships with undercover officers.
This information wasn’t easy for Davies to unearth. Little has been written about this spying strategy outside of Germany, she said. The BBC aired a piece on the practice in the mid 2000s and Davies was able to contact a journalist in Germany who had sat through the espionage cases and answered her questions directly. A friend of Davies who lived in Germany also summed up related books for her.
When her historical research was floundering, Davies explored the biochemistry of love and how pickup artists manipulate.
“How complicit are people to what happens to them, how much is manipulation and how much is grounded in something else,” she said.
Davies wouldn’t say much about what happens between Markus Richter (played by Daniel Arnold) and Karin Maynard (Lindsey Angell) to avoid exposing the twists and turns in the play that’s directed by Touchstone’s artistic director, Katrina Dunn.
Davies developed The Romeo Initiative through the Vada Playwrights Retreat in Italy and the Banff Centre for the Arts. The play won the National 2008 Enbridge Award for Established Artist and was first performed as part of the National PlayRites Festival of New Plays at Alberta Theatre Projects in Calgary in 2011.
Despite delving into deception, anxiety and paranoia in relationships, Davie doesn’t think her investigations have seriously messed with her mind.
“I don’t know if it made me more suspicious; I suspect I was suspicious before,” she said. “I’m now in a situation where I have a lovely partner and I have absolutely no suspicions of deception. I’m curious to see what he’s going to think of the play, though, because while he knows about it he hasn’t seen it performed yet, so it’s going to be interesting on opening night.”
The Romeo Initiative plays at the Vancity Culture Lab at the Cultch Nov. 14 to 24. For more information, see touchstonetheatre.com.