PLAYING DEAD Leaves One Cold
Of the many writers who have been influenced by Hamlet, Oleg and Vladimir Presnyakov—otherwise known as the Presnyakov Brothers—seem to occupy a rather unique position in the minority. It has become practically a cliché to note that Shakespeare’s melancholy prince is the most interesting character in his play—a prodigious intellect surrounded by philistines—and the role has long been an essential measuring stick for great actors. Yet Valia—the brooding, Hamlet-like protagonist of the Presnyakovs’ 2003 play, Playing Dead—turns these expectations inside-out. At least in the production currently playing at Single Carrot Theatre, Valia seems more petulant than philosophical, and the fascinating grotesques who populate his world overwhelm Nathan Fulton’s comparatively bland performance. The result is that it is never clear why we are supposed to care about this lost, little man.
Granted, it is difficult to know exactly which version of the play we are seeing. In a 2006 article published in Time magazine, the Presnyakov Brothers suggest that they have “remade” Playing Dead several times, and a quick Google search seems to confirm this—previous productions of the play (more commonly titled Playing the Victim) apparently differed in ways both significant and trivial from the Single Carrot production, which is a collaboration between the Baltimore-based theatre company and the Center for InterNational Theatre Development.
As part of its New Directors-New Voices Project, the CITD—which is also headquartered in Baltimore—has partnered with Towson University’s New Russian Drama Project to introduce American audiences to contemporary Russian playwrights. The director of Playing Dead is Yury Urnov, who is teaching at Towson University as a Fulbright Scholar, and the translation was supplied by Juanita Rockwell, founding director of Towson’s MFA in Theatre program. Either Rockwell chose for her text one of the Presnyakovs’ less coherent “remakings” of their play, or her translation (or Urnov’s direction) glosses over crucial details related to character and plot.
Particularly confusing is the final sequence, which produces a tableaux of corpses reminiscent of Hamlet; the dead people were either murdered in cold blood by Valia or tragically dispatched by bad sushi. The corpse of Valia’s uncle, who had married Valia’s widowed mother, then rises as Valia’s deceased father, whom Valia suspects had been poisoned by his uncle before the play began … or perhaps I simply misheard that line—the opening scenes speed by at breakneck pace while music booms incongruously in the background; Urnov might have toned down Eric Lott’s sound design a bit.
This much of the plot seems clear: Valia has dropped out of school and is living at home with his aging mother (Genevieve de Mahy, who is actually in her twenties and whose matronly transformation is astonishing—I had to double-check my program to be sure I hadn’t misread the cast list). Valia works for the local police department, where he plays the victim in crime-scene reenactments—a dead-end job whose only virtue is that it is highly theatrical. Joey Bromfield’s set design drapes red and black curtains around isolated beds, windows, and tables, as though to blur the several worlds—both real and imagined—through which Valia navigates, and Rebecca Eastman’s costumes manage to be elaborate yet supple, allowing the actors great freedom of movement as they careen around the set and from one characterization to another.
The play drops Valia into three different crime scenes, with suspects ranging from a nervous husband who claims his wife slipped and fell to her death while washing windows to a disaffected youth who freely admits to shooting an old friend in the head at their high school reunion. Nathan A. Cooper plays all three “perps” as variations on the wild-eyed loonies who have rapidly become his specialty at Single Carrot; it might be time for Cooper to try his hand at something considerably more restrained, but he is so good at the type it seems churlish to complain.
Valia’s co-workers include the bubble-headed policewoman who videotapes the reenactments (Giti Jabaily) and the chronically exasperated captain who leads the investigations (Christopher Ashworth). Both Jabaily and Ashworth bring such exaggerated energy to their characters, one fears they’ll exhaust themselves before they can exit, but their stamina is remarkable. The captain’s total meltdown late in the play is a tour de force by Ashworth—the rant, triggered by Cooper’s most sociopathic killer, has the disorienting feel of a climax at the periphery of the stage, yet the Presnyakovs fill it with so many ideas and ironies, one is left wondering where poor, bored Valia fits into their vision.
Jessica Garrett is hilarious in too-brief appearances as a tyrannical swimming pool attendant and a soused sushi waitress, and Rich Espey is memorable as Valia’s cheerless uncle, whose own rant against chopsticks features some of the play’s wittiest writing. (“Humans evolved from the stick to the scoop!” he bellows.) As representatives of an older generation of Russians baffled by the young, Ashworth, de Mahy, Garrett, and Espey lend their characters—and consequently the play—an unexpected poignancy that I missed when the focus turned to Valia, his frustrated girlfriend (Jabaily in glasses), or the younger policeman who accompanies Valia to crime scenes and dreams of returning to school (Kaveh Haerian).
What do you get when you would rather spend time with ranting police captains and the embers of wasted lives than with the young and strong and the ostensible hero of a play? Certainly not Hamlet. Perhaps you get Playing Dead by the Presnyakov Brothers. Or perhaps you don’t. The only thing I can say for sure about Single Carrot’s latest production is that I cannot say anything about it for sure.
Playing Dead is playing at Single Carrot Theatre, located at 120 W. North Avenue, on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30 P.M., and Sundays at 2:30 P.M., through March 14. Tickets are $10-$20. For more information, call 443-844-9253 or go to www.singlecarrot.com.