BDI Theater Company

at the Commons Theater

Back in 1932, after 18 months of rehearsal, Vsevolod Meyerhold’s production of Nikolai Erdman’s The Suicide was abruptly canceled during dress rehearsal. The play made fun of the state, and Stalin wasn’t amused. Well, after seeing the current production, I can’t say I was all that amused either. This is a rather ponderous satire. It’s like one of those jokes that has a story to it; the joke teller is really enthusiastic, and you’re sort of held captive waiting for him to get to the point. Only here the point is made time and again, and the story takes almost two and a half hours.

Here’s the joke. Semyon Semyonovich Podsekalnikov (hereafter referred to as Semyon) wakes in the middle of the night with a craving for liverwurst. While he’s gone his wife Maria gets it into her head that he’s locked himself in the bathroom and is going to kill himself. You see, Semyon’s been depressed on account of being unemployed. It’s a silly misunderstanding, yet Semyon warms up to the grandeur of the notion of suicide. And suddenly his life becomes exciting. First, he’s given a tuba, to cheer him up. Then, all sorts of strangers begin dropping by–an intellectual, a femme fatale, a writer, a priest, and others–petitioning Semyon to kill himself in the name of their various causes. They even throw him a goodbye party. But Semyon can’t bring himself to pull the trigger, and everyone gets pissed off at him. Get it?

It reminds me a little bit of The Inspector General, by Gogol, which was written almost a hundred years earlier. Not that I’d rank The Suicide along with Gogol’s classic. Still, it sounds kind of fun, doesn’t it? And with a renowned director like Meyerhold and some big Russian talent–and what with 18 months of rehearsal–I bet you this could be a hit. Well maybe.

But back in Chicago, I was so overwhelmed by a fatalistic, possibly Russian inertia, that I couldn’t summon the energy to leave my seat during intermission. The problem with this show is immediately apparent. Todd Schmidt has directed The Suicide in a uniformly exaggerated style, without a trace of subtlety. This is the sort of show that we used to ridicule, back in school, as a “stylized production.” Which means that, whether it’s a Restoration comedy, a Russian farce, or a Moliere warhorse, the direction boils down to the same generic approach. A similar effect is produced by a keg-party comedian who just doesn’t know when to quit.

The most exhausting illustration is the performance given by Teri Pastore as Maria. Pastore’s very first utterance is a scream, when Maria awakes, lurching bolt upright in bed. From this point on, Pastore maintains that level of hysteria, as if she were hellbent on either winning a Jeff citation or developing a revolutionary new aerobic exercise method. Even during Pastore’s few more subdued scenes, I felt something akin to that lingering hum you hear when you walk home from a rock concert. A couple hours of this and I was ready for a sensory deprivation tank.

Now I know you could argue that manic intensity simply goes with the turf of farce, and if you don’t like it, shove off. But consider. Hysteria comes from somewhere, right? It has its ups and downs, and turns of motivation that reveal weird facets of human nature. It can’t be divorced from character, or it has no meaning and therefore no humor. Even the Three Stooges had distinct personalities of a sort. But Pastore’s hysteria is like a pocket-dictionary definition, dramatically short on context.

Most of the other performances exhibit this same tendency. The cast is eager enough, and quick to take a pratfall, but they rarely match the slapstick with the deft caricature that this play begs for. David VanMatre (as Semyon) never plays the suicide threat beyond a shallow bluff. And whether he’s bluffing himself or the others, it’s all the same. A single moment of gravity–for instance, if the bluff had suddenly turned dangerous–would have lent his performance some crucial depth. And Steven Fedoruk (as Viktor, the writer) has a couple wonderfully absurd speeches, but their humor is blunted. because Fedoruk is so busy trying to appear pompous that he never is pompous.

What this show needs are more actors like Kathleen O’Grady, who plays Cleopatra, the femme fatale. O’Grady exudes, rather than affects, the self-confidence of a natural born dominatrix. A lesser actor would have swung that riding crop around like a fly swatter, but O’Grady uses it with economy, precision, and most of all purpose. She knows how to get her man and just what to do to make him roll over. Matt Roth, too, has the knack. Roth plays Egor, a Marxist mailman, with a stubborn zeal that occasionally reminded me of the Monty Python school of caricature. When Egor confronts Viktor–“I am a postman and what I want to read about is postmen!”–it’s an ultimatum.

But overall, such exceptional performances are only respites in the long haul. Director Schmidt tries to hustle the play along, but a brisk tempo is no substitute for rhythm, and it only makes the play seem to drag all the more. Much of the drag is built into the script–all this stuff about the rights of the individual versus the demands of sociopolitical causes. And the theme is so obvious, so hammered and laminated, that by the time Semyon gets around to his big summary monologue, you could slip out and phone a cab without missing a thing.

The special appeal of The Suicide, as it says on the production poster, is that it was “banned in Russia.” I’m not certain that that, in itself, is reason enough to run out and see this play. But while were reveling in what we can do here in America that they can’t do in Russia, we ought to stop and reflect: when did we ever have the resources, or the commitment, to rehearse anything for a year and a half?