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The Russian National Postal Service

by Rich See

Today Ivan Sidorovich Zhukov turns seventy-five years old.

The creative forces at The Studio Theatre take us through the delusional world of an elderly Russian man teetering on the edge of poverty and insanity in the dark comedy The Russian National Postal Service. Kicking off their year-long look into Russian theatre, Studio offers the U.S. premiere of playwright Oleg Bogaev's warning about the reality of life in post-Soviet Russia. This is a world where pensioners starve and very little works as the nation moves towards a new model of being. It's at once wickedly satirical and heart-breakingly sad.

Mr. Bogaev has set the entire play in Ivan's small apartment, which he used to share with his deceased wife who worked at the post office and horded paper and envelopes. Here he alternately rails at the world and hides from it, as he writes letters to people that are never sent. Instead he slips the missives through any mail box-like slot in the apartment and then later gleefully discovers them to write a response. In Ivan's world he is both Ivan and Queen Elizabeth II, Ivan and Robinson Crusoe, Ivan and a Martian. It's a way of showing how, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian people had to re-envision their lives. While the younger citizens could actively participate in creating their existences, the nation's elderly were left to realize that the world they had given so much to and depended upon, no longer existed. So, while Ivan deals with the solitude and loneliness that comes with outliving one's family and friends, he's also dealing with the uncertainties of a world where food, hot water, and heat are scarce commodities. And to cope with this new topsy-turvy reality, he begins writing letters to give voice to his condition and to provide himself with a sense of importance.

Director Paul Mullins and his team have created a skewered vision of Ivan's life. Much like a Russian Pee Wee's Playhouse, everything is slightly askew and slanted. The stage is steeply raked, the set surrounded in black space, the ten foot high tower of boxes -- filled with paper and envelopes -- seemingly about to fall to the ground. Ivan's world is precipitously on the edge, magnifying the conditions of the Russian people, much like the magnifying lens for his television. To go along with Debra Booth's wonderful set, Michael Giannitti's lighting rises and falls with an amazing delicacy, as if to highlight the fact that we are walking through the recesses of Ivan's mind where realizations slowly reveal themselves and new thoughts are gently born. Alex Jaeger's costumes go from the mundane to the camp. His bedbugs and Martians are quite humorous, while Ivan dressed in brown pants and robe seems to becoming translucently invisible, simply fading from view.

Floyd King, in the role of Ivan, appears on stage so disturbingly pale, that the letter form Death advising him to " your death eternally..." hits home like a freight of bricks. You and Ivan realize it ain't getting much better than this and it makes you want to run from the theatre screaming "Live fast, die young, and leave a good looking corpse!" Mr. King once again gives a stellar performance, walking a tightrope between pathos and humor.

Catherine Flye, as Queen Elizabeth II, is the voice of compassionate conscience -- an odd choice by the playwright -- but one that highlights the absurdity of Ivan's situation. QE II is one of the wealthiest women in the world, known across the globe as someone powerful, yet with no real recognized political power. She simply exists -- much like Ivan -- except she, unlike Ivan, consistently has enough to eat. She is Ivan's exact polar opposite and the fact that she is wrestling with Vladimir Lenin (played ferociously by Tobin Atkinson) over the deed to Ivan's living room is that much more comic. The scene shows us just how much a pawn Ivan has been his entire life. And as more and more of Ivan's imaginary pen pals emerge, you realize they all want one-more piece of this elderly man -- until there is nothing left of him.

Rounding out the cast are: Scott McCormick as Joseph Stalin, Cecil Baldwin as Robinson Crusoe, Sasha Olinick as Russian civil war hero Vasily Ivanovich Chapaev, Roseanne Medina as 1930's glamour girl of Soviet cinema Lyubov Orlova, John Collins as cosmonaut Vitaly Sevastyanov, Amy Couchoud and Stephen Notes as the Bed Bugs, and Anthony Gallagher and Michael Wilson as The Martians (who humorously seem to have stepped right out of the X-Files). Together the cast brings this absurdist, dark comedy into vibrant color for our Capitalist senses.

If The Russian National Postal Service is any indication of what The Studio Theatre has in store for us with their Stoli-flavored "Grand Opening Season," fasten your seat belts because it promises to be a wonderfully bumpy ride over new terrain!

The Russian National Postal Service
by Oleg Bogaev
Translated by John Freedman
Directed by: Paul Mullins
with Floyd King, Catherine Flye, Tobin Atkinson, Scott McCormick, Cecil Baldwin, Sasha Olinick, Roseanne Medina, John Collins, Amy Couchoud, Stephen Notes, Anthony Gallagher, Michael Wilson
Set Design: Debra Booth
Lighting Design: Michael Giannitti
Costumes: Alex Jaeger
Properties: Michelle Elwyn
Sound Design; Neil McFadden
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission
The Studio Theatre, 1333 P Street NW
Telephone: 202-332-3300
WED - SAT @8, SAT - SUN @2; SUN @7; $25-$48
Opening 09/08/04, closing 10/24/04
Reviewed by Rich See based on 09/17/04 performance
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