BWW Review: Spooky Action Theater Rewrites History with COLLABORATORS
From the first darkly comic scene, Spooky Action Theater's COLLABORATORS plunges its audience into a tension between hilarity and terror. As the play unfolds, there is laughter at the absurdity of the situation and simultaneous dread over what will happen next. A revisionist account of Mikhail Bulgakov's writing of a play about dictator Joseph Stalin in 1930s Moscow, COLLABORATORS is inspired by fact but considers what could have happened behind the scenes.
Bulgakov (Paul Reisman) has just premiered his satirical play Molière to the acclaim of his friends, but learns that it will be banned and never performed again unless he writes a new play glorifying the early life of Stalin (Joe Duquette), in honor of Stalin's sixtieth birthday. Bulgakov has no choice but to accept this commission. Faced with writer's block, he winds up in the same room as his subject: Stalin himself. At first this seems like a dream, but the consequences of Bulgakov and Stalin's cat-and-mouse game are very real. Stalin practically ghostwrites the play as he gives Bulgakov the chance to sign off on decisions about the governance of the country. Together, they shape the future of the nation.
This staging of COLLABORATORS is the Washington area premiere of the John Hodge work, winner of the 2012 Olivier Award for Best New Play. Richard Henrich directs a perfectly cast production. Reisman's fearful Bulgakov becomes ever more anxious as he struggles to protect his loyal wife Yelena (MacKenzie Beyer). Duquette's Stalin is thoroughly entertaining and shifts from jovial to sinister within one sneer. The sarcastic Vladimir (G. Michael Harris) and ever-silent Stepan (Sha Golanski), secret police who monitor Bulgakov's writing progress, amuse even as they represent a constant threat. Both are caricatures that become surprisingly human. Robert Bowen Smith plays Bulgakov's friend Grigory, a novelist whose work has been repressed by the state, to great emotional effect in his own harrowing storyline.
The play shifts rapidly in tone, from comedic levity to dramatic heft and back again. Some of the most humorous moments are those in the ongoing play-within-a-play, as Actor #1 (Willem Krumich) and Actor #2 (Matthew Marcus) deftly act out ridiculous, reductive scenes from Bulgakov's play about Stalin. The other play-within-a-play is Molière, which shows the playwright's demise at the court of Louis XIV and foreshadows impending dramatic events.
The austere set (Giorgos Tsappas), vintage props (Becky Mezzanotte), lighting (Brian S. Allard) and costumes (Alisa Mandel) all create a historically accurate, dystopian feel in the intimate space. The sound design (David Crandall) adds to the paranoid atmosphere with door knocks and telephone rings that permeate the air. Much of the action takes place on either end of the staging area, and not in the center, occasionally making it difficult to focus on actors when they are further away. Overall, however, the design is overwhelmingly effective in expressing the repression of the Soviet Union.
Bulgakov's deal with Stalin, whether actual or imaginary, is real enough to have disastrous implications. While trying to fight against fascism and maintain his artistic integrity, Bulgakov only makes things worse for his friends and his nation. Though it is a work of fiction, the most horrifying parts of COLLABORATORS are steeped in truth. The suffering of the characters represents the suffering that thousands in Soviet Russia faced in varying degrees: widespread repression, police surveillance, torture, imprisonment, and execution.
It says much about COLLABORATORS that it can satirize this truth in a way that forces you to snicker even as you shift in your seat.
Running time: approximately 2 hours, including one 10-minute intermission.
COLLABORATORS plays through March 6th, 2016, at Spooky Action Theater at the Universalist National Memorial Church, 1810 16th Street NW, Washington, DC 20009. Tickets can be purchased on www.spookyaction.org or by calling 202-248-0301.
Photo: cast of COLLABORATORS; photo by Tony Hitchcock, courtesy of Spooky Action Theater website.