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If This is Living . . .

This bleakly comic Russian play wonders how it feels to die

Christopher Ashworth (left) and Nathan Cooper face death with a smile.

By Bret McCabe | Posted 3/10/2010

Playing Dead

By the Presnyakov Brothers, translated by Juanita Rockwell

Through March 14 at Single Carrot Theatre

Like any libidinious young university dropout, Valia (Nathan Fulton) likes to get with his girlfriend Olia (Giti Jabaily) whenever time permits--even if that means his bedroom while his mother is home. Olia obliges, even if she's not exactly enthused: at 33, she feels she's well past the point of genuine romantic attraction and making the best out of available companionship is better than being alone. Such is why she consents to scarfing Valia--wrapping her scarf around his neck and choking him a little bit while manually seeing to his tumescence, though she does it with all the enthusiasm of an inmate forced to clean his cell. And neither of them care--or stop--when Valia's mother (Genevieve de Mahy) pops in for a conversation, and even tugs on the scarf herself a little bit. As all three bodies crowd the bed in a bonkers scene of morbid sexual chicanery, it's far from the blackest bit of surreal satire in Single Carrot Theatre's production of the Presnyakov Brothers Playing Dead, a play that uses homicide re-enactments as its running comedic leitmotif. Valia works as the corpse for those police department productions.

Leave it to the country that produced the moral ruminations of Crime and Punishment, the satirical edge of Valentin Katayev, and the freewheeling inventiveness of Eduard Limonov to produce a play of such febrile considerations, desperate emotions, and macabre humor. The writing/theatrical Presnyakov brothers--Oleg and Vladimir--have been cranking out plays in Yekaterinburg, Siberia, since the late 1990s. Their Terrorism was translated into English for a heralded London debut in 2003. Playing the Victim--the English title of their 2002 play translated by Sasha Dugdale and produced at the 2003 Edinburgh Fringe Fest--has become Playing Dead for SCT, with a new translation from Juanita Rockwell (founding director of Towson University's theater MFA), directed by Russian director Yury Urnov (the Fulbright scholar in residence at Towson), and co-presented by the Baltimore-based Center for International Theatre Development.

SCT dives into this no-intermission, 90-minute version of Dead with the company's typical fearlessness, and for once the material is just as incautious as the players. Dead threads together a series of scenes that at first feel as unrelated as ducks and chewing gum. Valia, an almost textbook slacker, lives a pitifully disengaged life at home with his mother, who flits from needy to disinterested like a lightning bug glowing on and off. Valia suspects that his mother poisoned his father so that she could be with his father's brother, a suspicion he arrives at after being visited by the ghost of his dead father (Rich Espey gamely plays both the ghost and his brother, Valia's uncle). Valia and the uncle spar once it becomes clear that mom wants the uncle to move in.

The Hamlet overtones curveball calibrate Dead's elusive thematic concerns. Given the amount of actual and metaphoric death in the play--and the plays within the play--as well as Valia's arch explanation of why he chooses to play dead (as an inoculation against the fear of death), it'd be convenient to misread the play as an exploration of the death drive, a serio-comedic confrontation with life's end that plays cosmic inevitability off the absurdities that people do to each other. The latter are certainly witnessed during the three homicide re-enactments, where a police captain (Christopher Ashworth) and his two younger officers--the gamine Liuda (also Jabaily) and the mild-mannered Seva (Kaveh Haerian)--make a suspect (Nathan Cooper, biting into all three enactments with a feral intensity) retell the crime with Valia standing in for the murderee.

And death and its discontents would be the subject of these redone crime scenes were they more explicitly concerned with the business of killing and dying. Instead, the captain prefers to steal away with Liuda whenever possible, the suspects are ludicrously unreliable narrators, and Valia makes for an uncooperative corpse. Perhaps the operative word in the title isn't "dead," but "playing"--a modest twist that could suggest that there's something in the performance of Valia's profession that matters more than death itself. He's chosen a line of work that requires him, like some readings of Shakespeare's Hamlet, to be a passive, almost ineffectual character in the unfolding story that is his life. He's literally chosen the path of least resistance: doing nothing.

It's an idea supported by some of the directing choices--performers crawl over and atop each other as if they're too inert to occupy their own space--and by the Captain's penultimate monologue, a rabid tirade against a generation of people that "don't care, and you don't care that you don't care." Whether the Presnyakov brothers advocate or condemn unplugged passivity as a form of protest against the usual progress of becoming ineffectual members of polite society is unclear, but Playing Dead caustically suggests that giving up and growing up might be life decisions that aren't all that different.

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