BWW Reviews: Paper Chairs' THE SUICIDE a Lively, Hysterical Satire
There's no shortage of incredible pieces of art and theater that were lost, at least temporarily, during the Stalinist era of Communist Russia. Thank God, though, that Nikolai Erdman's absurdist masterpiece The Suicide somehow survived. Had it not, the world would be without one of the best commentaries on Communist society's impact on the freedom of the individual to think, feel, and be for themselves. Additionally, Austin theatergoers would be without one of the best theatrical productions of the year.
Erdman's play, originally written in 1928 but first produced in 1979 (outside of the Soviet Union, of course), centers on a young unemployed man, Semyon (Michael Joplin), who believes all of his problems and woes will be solved if he learns to play the tuba (did I mention it's an absurdist piece?). When that plan fails, Semyon contemplates suicide. Word spreads, and suddenly various strangers, each representing a different piece of Soviet society, invade Semyon's home and incessantly plead with him to martyr himself for their cause and their gain.
Co-directors Elizabeth Doss and Lisa Laratta excel at playing up the ridiculousness of the situation and characters. The assortment of Semyon's manipulators hound and chance him through his cramped home; they even literally come and go through a revolving door. The door is one of two brilliant features of the set, designed by Laratta. The other incredible feature are the walls and ceiling made of 70,000 feet of string. The bold design idea is a stroke of genius and an astonishing feat of innovation that, while quite a gamble, pays off tremendously.
Doss and Laratta have also assembled quite a remarkable ensemble cast, all of whom are deserving of praise. Michael Joplin is exceptionally well-cast as Semyon, the everyman slowly boiling over as those around him torment and manipulate him. And while he knows how to get the occasional laugh (the bit with the tuba is priceless), Joplin's best moments are his two more dramatic soliloquies, one in which he discloses his dilemma to a deaf mute (oh, the sad irony) and another in which he contemplates just how he should go about shooting himself. Kelli Bland and Lana Dietrich are wonderful as Semyon's worried and frantic wife and mother-in-law. As Semyon's neighbor, Nathan Brockett gives a brilliantly physical performance that at times evokes the idea of Bugs Bunny (Take a moment to imagine Bugs Bunny in a Russian absurdist comedy. Trust me, it's hilarious). Laura Freeman proves to be a fellow scene-stealer as Cleopatra Maximovna, the seductive and zany spiritualist, and it's a treat to just hear Frank Benge speak as the affected and pretentious member of the Intelligentsia.
While suicide is certainly no laughing matter, The Suicide undoubtedly is. This show, where text, direction, design, and performance come together in perfect synchronicity, is not to be missed.
Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission.
THE SUICIDE, produced by Paper Chairs, plays The Off Center (2211 Hidalgo St, Austin, 78702) now thru May 31st. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8pm. Tickets are $15-$30. For tickets and information, please visit www.paperchairs.com