Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Knocking on Stalin's door with the Imaginary Beasts

Michael Underhill (I think) and Joey Pelletier in Knock!. Photos: Roger Metcalf

With the passing of the late, lamented Whistler in the Dark, Imaginary Beasts became the leading (perhaps the only!) intellectual light on Boston's theatre scene. Which Beastmaster Matthew Woods seems to have almost taken as a call to arms - for his latest, Knock!: The Daniil Kharms Project (through this weekend only at the BCA) proves one of his most challenging efforts to date.

Just as this particular writer may count as one of his most obscure choices of author ever: the Russian Kharms (a pseudonym, btw, for Daniil Iv├ínovich Yuvatchov) has only recently begun to be widely known in the West. The avant-garde collective he founded, "OBERIU" (roughly "The Union for Real Art"), flourished briefly in the 1920's, with anarchic, circus-like performances and a devotion to dadaist non-sense. But both founder and movement ran afoul of Stalinist authoritarianism in the decade to come: Kharms was arrested in 1931, endured a period of exile, and returned to an atmosphere of intense pressure from official censors. He retreated to children's literature, but was eventually re-arrested and confined to a psychiatric ward in Leningrad in 1941; during the long siege of that city, he perished (apparently of starvation) in his cell.  Friends saved a suitcase stuffed with his work - which would only begin to be published decades after his death.

It's a grim story, surely, so it's no surprise that this time around, the Beasts' familiar deconstructive whimsy has a grotesque, almost cruel edge. Although this hardly obscures what drew Woods to Kharms: the innocent irrationality of children - and their charmingly unstable attempts to make imaginative sense of the world - have always been one of his key artistic concerns. And Kharms, in his parallel career, was a highly successful children's writer; but he was a child who took more glee in destruction than deconstruction: this author wanted to break things - and not just Socialist Realism (understandably enough) but most all language, and meaning, too; Kharms wants to "escape" from everything, the better to truly experience things in themselves. Thus there's little long-form work by him available, even now; his oeuvre is mostly "micro-prose" - quirky juxtapositions, suggestive situations, and the seeming buds of stories crack apart before our eyes, again and again.

Woods and the Beasts - with the help of dramaturg Matthew McMahan - have nevertheless attempted to conjure from these shards a full evening of theatre (from a punchy translation by Irina Yakubovskaya)  - and by and large they succeed: Knock! is more often than not fascinating, and as with any Beasts show, it constantly beguiles the eye (if this time in a rough-hewn way).  The gaggle of red-nosed clowns (in Soviet coats) who sometimes embody the state, and sometimes the lower classes, and sometimes just the wind - are only one of many brilliant strokes. Costumer Cotton Talbot-Minkin is in high form throughout - as always - and the set design (by Woods and Christopher Bocchiaro) is apt (a dozen doors to knock on, or down), while Bocchiaro's lighting design is always imaginative.

And the performances - by many familiar denizens of the Bestiary - hold to a similarly high standard. I won't soon forget William Schuller's inspired contortions around, upon, and under his writing table, or Joey Pelletier's sallowly menacing "Watchman," or the way in which Michael Underhill manages to poignantly commit suicide with only a chair. Other performances are almost mysterious in their confident minimalism - how exactly, for instance, does Molly Kimmerling manage to grip us as the cryptic Babushka, who never really says anything that makes any sense at all?  I've no idea - but somehow she does.

It must be admitted, however, that the Beasts have sometimes relied on Kharms' own story to shape their work in a way that defies his anarchic ideals. The fateful suitcase that saved his legacy makes many an appearance, for instance - and the soulful Michael Chodos (at left), as an apparent Kharms factotum, more than once trudges across the stage against a bitter wind. Not that I minded these interpolations - but I wondered what Kharms might have thought of them. I also sometimes felt that the visuals (brilliant as they were) had been conceived in an absurdist rearview mirror - with scraps of Beckett and Ionesco clinging to, and familiarizing, their wilder, woolier ancestor.

But these are only quibbles with what counts as a triumph against long odds.  Would any of our larger theatres had half the daring or imagination of Imaginary Beasts!! Sigh - no, I'm not going to hold my breath waiting for that to happen; but in the meantime, thoughtful Hub theatergoers will not want to miss Knock!, or indeed any of the Beasts' remarkable escapades.

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