Taffety Punk stages a Russian theatrical concept album in ‘Oxygen’


Company members Dan Crane and Esther Williamson in Taffety Punk Theatre Company's “Oxygen.” (Teresa Castracane)
April 10, 2013

Oxygen is a substance that feeds fire, so it seems apt that “Oxygen,” Taffety Punk Theatre Company’s theatrical concept album, should boast an intensity that smolders. For 70 relentless minutes, as two actors prowl, pose, glower and caress their way through Ivan Vyrypaev’s play against a soundscape of simmering electronica, the heat is on.

The production, at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, remounts Taffety Punk’s 2012 staging of Vyrypaev’s script, which also was the basis for a 2009 Russian film. In 10 monologues, which vaguely resemble narrative prose poems, “Oxygen” depicts modern Russians grappling with desire, cynicism, global awareness and the fading memory of a more morally structured world. Taffety Punk’s brainstorm was to commission District area bands, including E.D. Sedgwick, the Caribbean and Jupiter Rex, to write music to accompany the monologues, turning them into embodied album tracks.

Directors Lise Bruneau and Chris Curtis and their scenic designer, Peter Adams, give the resulting concert-theater hybrid a stark, garage-band look. A bed, mounted on cinder blocks and draped in a series of dingy, mismatched sheets, anchors one end of a thrust-style stage, opposite a sound booth where a DJ (Dan Crane) spins tunes. Illumined by harsh concert lighting (Brittany Diliberto is lighting designer), the stage becomes the domain of figures known as Him (Mark Krawczyk) and Her (Esther Williamson). Now brooding, now confrontational, now grimly matter-of-fact, the two stalk around, usually with microphone in hand, often making eye contact with the audience.

Through their streams of words, we meet, or hear about, men and women who engage in murder, adultery, ethical soul searching, sexual promiscuity, angst about the Middle East, and the frequenting of second-rate liquor stores in the Russian provinces. Each of the 10 monologues alludes, at least in passing, to a different precept from a nontraditional Ten Commandments. And in most of the monologues (which incorporate some conversations between Him and Her), grittily lyrical images bloom and recur: Breathing is like a dance of the lungs; sex is like a false idol; a pill is like a tiny Ferris wheel.

The fragments of story are hard — perhaps impossible — to follow logically; you just have to let the fever-dream aesthetic wash over you. Krawczyk, in sunglasses, cargo pants and a T-shirt that reads “Ukraine,” is an intriguingly aggressive and haunted figure who glares at theatergoers with crazed, wide eyes and spins a mike stand menacingly. Williamson, in a purple minidress, is a more rational but equally forceful figure who suggests a rebellious resistance to macho culture even when she condescends to share the bed with Him or to allow Him to stroke her arm.


Mark Krawczyk and Esther Williamson in Taffety Punk Theatre Company's “Oxygen.” (Teresa Castracane)

The varied yet compatible musical compositions, with their hypnotic beats and synthesizer sounds, help give the piece a sense of urgency verging on crisis. When, in the final scene, the two characters listen on iPods to a tune we don’t hear, it’s a reminder that everyone in the world lives to a subjective, unpredictable and possibly distorted psychological soundtrack.

Oxygen

By Ivan Vyrypaev, translated by Sasha Dugdale, with original music by various bands. Directed by Lise Bruneau and Chris Curtis; costume design, Scott Hammar; sound, Chris Curtis; assistant director, Kelsey Mesa. About 70 minutes. Through April 26 at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 7th Street SE, Washington. Go to tix.taffetypunk.com or call 1-800-838-3006

Wren is a freelance writer.

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