Short Term Listings
BOOKS and CDs
LETTERS TO EDITOR
Writing for CurtainUp
|A CurtainUp Review
The faces of the actors standing around or sitting on one of the many suitcases reflect a mix of tension and resignation. To add to the ominous mood, there are also two uniformed, armed guards. But Terrorism is not a hostage scenario. Siberian playwrighting team known as the Presnyakov Brothers (Oleg, 35 and Vladimir, 31), have given the all too pervasive subject a black as black absurdist twist and this airport runway scene is the first in a roundelay of six scary yet funny mini-plays, all smartly inter-connected and reflecting terrorism's effect on our daily lives and psyches -- its insidious tendency to spread like a virus and affect our thoughts and actions.
This play's American premiere by the New Group and the Play Company follows numerous European productions. It was originally produced at the Moscow Arts Theatre in 2002 and a year later at the Royal Court. Though written before 9/11 and last year's tragic seizure of a Moscow theater by Chechen rebels, there were plenty of earlier terrorist events (e.g. the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the Lockerbie tragedy) to trigger the brothers' rumination on terrorism's explosive and corrosive effect on our interior landscape.
Director Will Frears has assembled an A-drawer American cast to insure that the play will resonate with its New York audience without losing its Russian flavor. The initial airport scene's black and red colors are reminders of the lingering effects of Russia before its breakup, when people were accustomed to standing on long lines for their most basic daily necessities. The reason for their being forced to wait around now is some suspicious luggage that has to be investigated before anyone is allowed to board their flights is typical of airports and public transportation facilities everywhere; for example, New York subway signs urging riders "If you see something, say something" taken for granted as the endless ads for technical colleges promising profitable careers and dermatologists promising clear complexions.
The play's style and mood reflects a debt to many literary sources -- from the authors' Russian forbear, Gogol, to Brecht, Kafka and Arthur Schnitzler, though the disparate scenes in this La Rondish plot are connected by various expressions of disquietude rather than passion. There are also signs of novelistic influences. I would be surprised if the Presnyakovs hadn't read some of Kurt Vonnegut's works in translation.
As different as each scene is, the connection in terms of plot and thematic intent isn't difficult to figure out. When the scene shifts to a bedroom where a disappointing adulterous encounter prompts two lovers (Elizabeth Marvel and R. E. Rogers) to play a dangerous sexual it's evident that the surprise return of the husband (Alex Draper, the impatient business man we met in scene one) will intensify the danger.
That cuckolded husband and businesman is the play's overall linking character, an actual or talked about presence. Before his circle completing final appearance, we visit the typing pool of the company he heads where one of the workers commits suicide; a park bench where a widowed grandmother (Laura Esterman) is watching her unseen grandson at play, as her friend (Lola Pashalinski) advises her about bettering her situation by poisoning her son-in-law; and a bomb squad's locker room where officers are callously discussing a photo of a bomb scene where the only remains of a human being are a pair of hands and and feet tied to a bed.
All the actors play at least two parts in this nightmare world. Elizabeth Marvel, who continues to live up to her surname, starts off as a bomb squad soldier, sheds her clothes for the super charged adultery scene and makes a third appearance as one of the drones in the Kafkaesqe office. The veteran stage actress Lola Pashalinski has her showiest scene as the murderous old lady who shares a park bench with Laura Esterman (another fine performance). Daniel Oreskes smoothly navigates between pessimistic all-knowingness (per the quotation at the top of this review) and bizarrely amusing absurdity as a self-absorbed office psychologist and as the bomb squad's boss. I could go on, but you get the idea. The entire cast is more than up to the task of revealing the shocking instincts beneath their characters' "normal "social exteriors.
The Kafkaesque scene in which the shock of a co-worker's suicide wears off faster than you can spell "dead " and gives way to inane gossip and self-revelations best illustrates these talented brothers' gift for applying surreal humor to their depressing view of terrorism's fungus-like effect on contemporary Russia and its citizens. Sasha Dugdale's translation contributes towards making this a global rather than a strictly Russian tragedy.
Director Will Frears has skillfully worked with the designers and cast to effect an organic move forward from one scene to the next. Thus, some of the suitcases that remain upstage throughout the ninety minutes contain costume changes which the actors make right before our eyes. Some scenic changes drop down from the side walls of David Korins' clever set, others are props moved in and out by the actors. Sound designer Bart Fasbender's well-chosen incidental music aids the flow of this intra-scene activity.
Most importantly, Frears and the actors are attuned to this play's surreal sensibility and manage to engage our minds. They make us laugh often and ultimately leave us scratching our head as to whether everything that has happened was merely a nightmare --another of terrorism's never-ending mind games.
A postcript/caveat prompted by an email from a reader from Brooklyn who wrote as follows:
" I also thought Terrorism was stylish and worth seeing. However, I thought the sex scene would have been sexier and less distracting without its ultra realism (pubic hair and male appendage showing) and that making Daniel Okrent reveal his "jewels" totally unnecessary. Your otherwise excellent review should include a caveat for people who hate this sort of in your face stuff masquerading as edgy theater. "
Editor's Response: Point well taken. I guess I was so pleased that the New Group which has in the past often overwhelmed its audiences with second-hand smoke, refrained from this in a show with chracters who in real life probably smoke a lot. But then this proves your point -- if the New Group can recognize that characters who normally smoke can be portrayed without lighting up, they can give up their penchant for nudity that is, as you aptly put it, " more distracting than edgy. " -- e.s.
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
Click image to buy.
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
Click image to buy.
Go here for details and larger image.