Theater Oobleck

at Angel Island

By Albert Williams

“The poor have only one advantage,” says Ingrid Bergman in the 1956 movie Anastasia. “They know when they are loved for themselves.” Smart but self-indulgent Theater Oobleck challenges audiences to love it for itself. The directorless ensemble’s shows, peppered with in-jokes and arcane allusions, sometimes resemble a onetime performance thrown together at a family reunion by the clan’s cleverest smart alecks. And where most theater companies rack their brains trying to figure out what will please viewers in an ever more competitive marketplace, the invariably witty and inventive Oobleck pulls full houses with its casually anarchic aesthetic.

Antistasia is typical: written by Dave Barnstraw and the company and drawing primarily on the 1956 film, it’s a very funny hit-and-run barrage of topical and historical satire peppered with a dizzying range of political, religious, literary, and showbiz references. The company’s obvious pleasure in its own work is so infectious that even the obscure bits are entertaining; few off-Loop ensembles are as much fun to watch as these offbeat off-Loop anarchists because few seem to be having this much fun.

The legend of Anastasia–the daughter of Czar Nicholas II, the last ruler in Russia’s Romanov dynasty–has fascinated generations. Nicholas and his family were executed by Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution (in fact, this production commemorates the 80th anniversary of the July 17, 1918, slayings as well as Russia’s controversial reburial of the Romanovs’ remains last weekend). For decades it was believed that the 16-year-old grand duchess Anastasia escaped the slaughter and ended up living in America under the name Anna Anderson. A former mental patient, Anderson insisted until her death that she was Anastasia; posthumous DNA tests have disproved her claim, and it’s now presumed that Anastasia died with her parents. Anderson’s case was dramatized (and heavily distorted) in French playwright Marcelle Maurette’s Anastasia, produced on Broadway in 1954 in Guy Bolton’s English translation. The glossy 1956 screen version, scripted by Arthur Laurents and directed by Anatole Litvak, provided Bergman with an Oscar-winning Hollywood comeback after her scandalous affair with Italian filmmaker Roberto Rossellini, and it is this movie–accurately dubbed “slick, highly theatrical entertainment for the upper classes” by Halliwell’s Film Guide–that provides the core of Oobleck’s decidedly unslick lumpen lampoon.

In Anastasia a former Russian army officer named Bounine trains the amnesiac Anna to impersonate the long-lost duchess in a scheme to claim her inheritance–but as the training proceeds, both Anna and Bounine begin to believe that Anna really is the woman she pretends to be. They also fall in love, eventually choosing a life together over the demands of Anna’s new identity after Anna has established her claim to the Romanov fortune by convincing Anastasia’s grandmother, the aged dowager empress, that she is indeed Anastasia.

Guiding this story is a running motif of theatricality; line after line of dialogue reinforces the theme of staged illusion versus ambiguous reality. “Excellent material for melodrama,” sneers the dowager empress, skeptical of Anna’s claim to be her granddaughter. But when the old woman begins to believe Anna, Anna tells her, “You’ll insist it was all acting.” And after Anna and Bounine disappear on the night Anna is to be presented as Anastasia, the dowager empress wryly dismisses a throng of sycophants with the film’s final words: “The play is over. Go home.”

Indeed, the film can be seen as a grand metaphor for modern theater: Bergman’s Anna is the ultimate Method actress, plumbing her own memories while researching her role until she merges with the character she’s playing, while Yul Brynner’s Bounine is a director who loses control of his show because he falls in love with the leading lady. Thus Anastasia is a perfect target for Oobleck, which loudly proclaims its disdain for directors (“Putting the burden of innovation on the director is like putting the prime minister in charge of the revolution,” a program note declares) while reveling in cheesy acting, off-key singing, rudimentary blocking (actors find their lights only occasionally), and routine disregard for the fourth wall.

Oobleck’s antitheatricality also informs Antistasia’s portrayal of the heroine: she’s a reluctant Romanov who turns out to be an abducted peasant. Oobleck’s Anastasia, played with winning wackiness by Abby Sher, is a grave disappointment to the royal family, an unwitting triumph of nature over nurture despite her life of luxury. (“Go to your suite of rooms!” declares Jon Smeenge as the czar when he punishes his daughter.) To the consternation of her dithery mother (Kelly Butler), she burps (a parody of Bergman’s chronic cough), slouches, and empathizes with underlings (“I get a funny feeling every time I see a servant being whipped”).

The royal daughter’s innate commonness wins the attention of her maid Svetlana (the sardonic Amy Warren), who conspires to pass her mistress off as “Antistasia,” the long-sought child of the peasant matriarch Lyudmilla Sinovia Stepinavitch (Barbara Thorne). Peasant pretenders have come from all over Russia seeking Lyudmilla’s recognition and the reward that goes with it–a cow and a pig. At Svetlana’s urging, Anastasia flees her parents’ palace in the company of Tevia, a Yiddish comedian played with subversive smarminess by David Isaacson. Like Anastasia’s Bounine, Tevia preps Anastasia for her new identity–teaching her the finer points of peasantry, such as speaking gutturally and wiping her sweat with her sleeve rather than her hankie. And like Bounine he gradually falls for his charge. But before true love can run its course, the question of Antistasia’s identity must be dealt with–and it is, in a protracted parody of Anastasia’s famous recognition scene between Bergman and Helen Hayes as the dowager empress. So must a nagging little item called the Russian Revolution, as participants on both sides (including playwright Barnstraw as a White Army general who drinks–what else?–White Russians) try to exploit Anastasia/ Antistasia for their own purposes.

Antistasia borrows from textual sources as varied as Brecht, the Marx Brothers, and Singin’ in the Rain, while a trimly astringent little combo (saxophone, trombone, fiddle, and string bass) plays in styles ranging from country to klezmer, Broadway to punk. (The czar proclaims his policies–political persecution, pogroms, and the like–to the tune of Henry Gibson’s bicentennial ballad in Nashville, while Anastasia’s training sessions are drawn from My Fair Lady.) The well-informed but by no means well-structured script suggests a cross between a pun-packed episode of Rocky and His Friends and a jokey Mensa summer-camp skit, addressing such diverse topics as “Russian Orthodox liberation theology,” theories of the divine right of kingship, and the hemophilia of Anastasia’s brother Alexi (when Dave Awl as the preppy prince throws a tantrum, instead of holding his breath he hits himself). There’s even a snide list of the top ten reasons it’s so hard to kill royalty. (Among them: “A French chauffeur needs at least six drinks to get good and drunk.” Sentimental nostalgia for dead aristocrats isn’t limited to Russia, after all.)

Oobleck’s playfully haphazard performance suggests that more attention has been paid to researching the material than polishing it. Yet the apparently amateurish staging contains some delicious visual touches: Anastasia’s sisters are cardboard cutouts, and her railway ride to peasantland features a scenic mural scrolling outside the train window; the czar and czarina cavort in gray-and-white moon and sun costumes for a silent movie by French filmmaker “Lulu Lumiere”; a priest sermonizes on Moses using a toy theater featuring xeroxed images of Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, and Joseph Stalin; and the “hairy mole” Anastasia displays to prove her peasant identity is–well, let’s just say it lives up to its description in a most unexpected way.

Some theaters simply stick to the original scripts of their sources–old horror movies, TV sitcoms, and the like–predictably mocking them with archly “campy” performances and gross-out visual effects. Oobleck pokes fun at its source, but it also transforms the material into something unexpected, establishing a place for itself on the cutting edge of the fringe. And the price is hard to beat: “$7, free if yer broke, more if ya got it.” Such a deal; no wonder Oobleck draws sellout crowds and has continued to flourish long after skeptics like me predicted a short life. Of course, “flourish” is a relative term; when Isaacson as Tevia describes an actor’s life as “work by day, theater by night,” his rueful tone will be familiar to many off-Loop artists. But even if no one’s making any money, Oobleck can take some satisfaction in the full houses its irreverent, idiosyncratic style of theater draws. After all, as Bergman says, at least the poor know they’re loved for themselves.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): theater still uncredited.