BWW Reviews: Taffety Punk Presents Innovative OXYGEN

By: Apr. 07, 2013

There are few, if any, theatre companies in Washington, DC that are as consistently daring as Taffety Punk Theatre Company. With so much risk taking involved, it's nearly impossible to hit a home run, so to speak, every time. While the daring troupe's latest presentation, Oxygen, based on Ivan Vyrypaev's 2009 Russian film, left me slightly perplexed I do have to admire the thought and skill that went into presenting the multi-faceted, and admittedly ambitious, piece.

Taffety first presented a slightly different version of Oxygen last spring. Thanks to the success of that incantation, it has returned once again to Taffety's home at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop under the careful direction of Lise Bruneau and Chris Curtis. Three stellar actors use intricate and rhythmic spoken word, backed by catchy beats (composed by local DC bands), to depict the story of urban boy ("He," Mark Krawczyk) meets provincial girl ("Her," Esther Williamson) in contemporary Russia. Both are named Sasha. They use ten tracks that are loosely based on Biblical tenets - first being heard in a studio as part of a live concert - to explore each stage and dimension of the relationship with a DJ (a solid Dan Crane) helping to move the proceedings along.

Although the story of Sasha meeting Sasha is very specifically set in contemporary Russia - a fact made quite clear due to the ample use of Russian language, and references to uniquely Russian locations, political and social conundrums - one can also appreciate the universality of Vyrypaev's story (translated into English by Sasha Dugdale). He takes great care not to oversimplify the nature of romantic relations - the kind that are so intense and so initially compelling that they seem necessary to live (like 'oxygen') -and does not shy away from presenting the dangers of such strong interpersonal connections.

Given the emotionally-charged relationship at hand, it's reasonable to use 'music' (of sorts) and poetic language to express not only the connection between boy and girl, but the impact of that connection on each individual. To that end, the presentational elements ('the tracks') aren't gimmicks, but simply a form of powerful expression.

Because the success of this concert-play relies so heavily on the actors' ability to powerfully deliver spoken word in time with the music, rather than set elements (Peter Adams), fancy lighting (Brittany Diliberto), sound design (Chris Curtis), or costumes (Scott Hammar) - although those certainly enhance the presentation in this case - it's imperative that they are technically and emotionally up to the task. Thankfully, audience members need not worry in this case. Williamson and Krawczyk, in particular, bring relentless energy, angst, and drama at every moment of the event and capture the tumultuous nature of the Sasha-Sasha relationship.

It would be easy to lose one's self in either of the intensely emotional Sasha characters and get too caught up with presenting a 'rock concert,' but neither Williamson nor Krawczyk fall into these traps. They display a range of emotions - from anger and fear to love, lust, and hate - while paying careful attention to their diction to the point where they'd make many rappers envious. Every word is clear, yet also meaningful even as they try out a variety of microphone techniques (this is, in fact, a studio concert after all).

With all that great acting is there anything not to love? I did find some of the staging choices slightly repetitive and wondered how many times the two actors could possibly run from one area of the theatre to another, stand against a wall, and hop up on a bed. It did not make for a visually interesting stage picture even if it was purposeful. Further, while the local musicians who composed the backing tracks did a commendable job from a technical standpoint, I found the beats lacked variety and were quite uninteresting on their own. Each was fairly indistinguishable from all the others and at some point it became monotonous to hear the rhythms. Nonetheless, one could also say these perceived weaknesses are also strengths in that they make the show cohesive and allow the acting to be the focal point.

Despite these quibbles, this show is worth a look for the adventurous DC theatregoer. One has to admire Taffety Punk's ambition.

Running Time: 75 minutes (no intermission).

Oxygen plays through April 26, 2013 at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop - 545 7th Street, SE. Tickets ($15) are available online.

Photo Credit: Teresa Castracane (Mark Krawczyk and Esther Williamson pictured).


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