When rehearsals began, the actors knew little about Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania's megalomaniacal dictator who was gunned down with his wife, Elena, during a revolutionary uprising in December 1989.
At best, the students from St. Paul's School and St. Paul's School for Girls -- both off Falls Road in Brooklandville -- could point to the tiny nation on a map.
The 19-member troupe now knows significantly more.
The actors have spent recent weeks studying Romanian culture and history in preparation for the production of "Mad Forest," a play that chronicles the last days of Ceausescu's dictatorship and the mass confusion that followed his fall.
"I never knew anything about the revolution," said Christina Meisel, 15, who plays a politically active angel in the allegorical drama. "I knew the Berlin Wall fell down in Germany, but I didn't hear about anything in Romania."
Working through Romania's turbulent history required more diligence than students expected. Even Romanians who lived through the experience have varying opinions about what caused the uprising and who benefited from it.
As the country struggles to adapt to democracy, some Romanians believe they fared better under Ceausescu, although he regularly denied residents heat, hot water and electricity to pay off foreign debt. He abolished the celebration of Christmas and forbade the delivery of eggs to grocery stores on the day before Easter. The Romanian secret police, called the Securitate, silenced dissidents.
"I saw a lot of similarities between what Ceausescu did in Romania and what [Slobodan] Milosevic did in Serbia," said Peter King, who oversees the combined theater program at the schools. "What Ceausescu did to his own people was horrendous."
The drama, by British writer Caryl Churchill, presents the stories of two families -- the Vladus and the Antonescus -- as they struggle to understand the political events of their time.
"The title, 'Mad Forest,' aptly describes the chaos and confusion surrounding the events of the dictator Ceausescu's overthrow," said King. "There were many questions. No one knew what was really happening, whose side the army was on, who the terrorists were who were shooting into the square."
To help his students better understand the Romanian characters they would play, King asked two Romanian immigrants, Cristian Tanasescu, 47, and his father, Gheorghe Tanasescu, 74, to describe the way their country worked under communist rule.
"You have to live through communism to believe it," said Cristian Tanasescu, who emigrated to this country in 1983 and lives in Hampden. "To live free, here, you forget what it was like there."
Although the play does a good job of depicting the harsh realities of communist Romania -- including food shortages and the threat of wiretapping -- life there was even grimmer, Cristian Tanasescu said.
In one scene, six Romanians stand in line to purchase meat, which was scarce much of the time during Ceausescu's reign. "If there were just six people in line, that would have been a dream," Cristian Tanasescu said. "It was more like hundreds of people."
The Tanasescus worked with St. Paul's students on the pronunciation of Romanian words. At the start of each scene, students recite scene titles in Romanian and English. They carry Romanian phrase books as if they were tourists preparing for a visit.
"It's as if we are looking in on their world," King said. "It's symbolic of [Americans'] feeble attempts to understand foreign situations."
Besides the angel, other supernatural beings visit the "Mad Forest" stage, including a vampire and the ghost of a dead grandmother who lived through World War II.
The role of the vampire, a dandy who carries a cane, is played by Jim Prevas, 16.
"The vampire represents [former Romanian President Ion] Iliescu and his followers," Prevas said, explaining a scene in which the vampire meets a lonely dog. "The dog is the Romanian people who Iliescu is trying to coax into trusting him."
Eventually, the dog approaches the vampire, who bites into the poor beast's neck. (Iliescu and other members of the National Salvation Front are said to have taken advantage of post-revolutionary Romania, dividing up the spoils of communism among themselves.)
"I knew nothing about Romania before," said Prevas. "This is my first view of it. To study it like this, on stage, has been fascinating."
King expects much of his student actors. Besides rigorous rehearsals, he coaches them to assume the proper mind-set of each character before they step on stage. For some students, that means transforming themselves into frightened, brutish, naive or paranoid people.
"Why are you coming on the scene, and what do you want that person to do?" King asked the students during a recent dress rehearsal. "You are trying to get people to join you -- either to make the revolution happen or not."
He encourages students to take drama seriously.
"We are not just here to put on a little entertaining evening," he said. "You committed to doing something artistic, and that's what makes it exciting."
The Tanasescus will be watching tonight.
"When I lived in Romania, I thought communism was so powerful," said Cristian Tanasescu. "I thought I would never live to see communism go down. When I heard about the play, I loved it. It is the first play in my life about communism."
The final performance of "Mad Forest" will be at 7: 30 tonight at the Ward Center, St. Paul's School, 11152 Falls Road in Brooklandville.