Walloping post-Soviet morality
By Jane Horwitz
Monday, May 14, 2012
Part poetry slam, part bitter romance, part moral screed, “Oxygen” clocks in at a mere 70 minutes but packs a full-length wallop.
Taffety Punk Theatre Company, which more often weds its punk-rock aesthetic to works of Shakespeare or other English-language writers, has dived into a modern Russian morality play with “Oxygen.” The piece mostly mesmerizes but, from time to time, mystifies.
“Oxygen” (“Kislorod” in Russian) was written in 2002 by playwright, actor and filmmaker Ivan Vyrypaev. He adapted it into a film in 2009 that was released in Russia but not in the United States. Translated by Sasha Dugdale, the text breaks down into 10 rhythmic monologues, called “tracks.”
It’s an epic poem set against a rock soundtrack, spinning a bitter tale of murder, betrayal, lust and moral disillusionment. At its center are “Him” (Mark Krawczyk) and “Her” (Esther Williamson), both nicknamed Sasha. The male Sasha is brutish, passionate, dance-crazy, a small-town thug. He kills his dark-haired wife with a gardening spade because she has “no oxygen,” for which he’s starved, and because he has fallen for Her, a redheaded city girl who betrays her husband to be with Him. Gradually, the story of Him and Her and their personal sins broadens into a moral indictment of the corruption and violence in post-Soviet Russia.
Vyrypaev has based each of the tracks on a Bible quote; he shows how his flawed characters flout the lessons in those verses, as does his morally foundering country.
Each track is announced by a brightly T-shirted DJ (Dan Crane) who keeps the recorded music clicking along at the back of the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop’s theater space. Taffety Punk commissioned music from District-based musicians, who’ve contributed a fresh and driving set of instrumentals. The playbill lists contributors Edie Sedgwick, the Caribbean, the Gena Rowlands Band, Jupiter Rex, Electric Blanketland and the Inexhaustible Chalice.
Krawczyk and Williamson walk a tricky line as the Russians. Krawczyk bounds around the performance space like a rocker, his eyes lined in black, clutching a mike as if he were about to eat it. He sulks when Williamson, a rational, sharply focused counterpoint to his id-on-the-loose, berates Him for being “incapable of feeling anything for other people.”
As directed by Lise Bruneau and Chris Curtis, Williamson and Krawczyk fill the space with fiery energy and see to it that Vyrypaev’s point remains sharp amid the torrent of words and music. They yank their microphones off the stands and tell their story while running up, down and around the playing area, its black walls marked with chalk drawings of branches and lightning bolts. They always end up at a grungy bed in the center. When the DJ announces a new track, one of them peels a sheet off that bed and hurls it furiously offstage.
Sasha and Sasha, the 30- and 40-somethings of modern Russia, we’re told, “are a whole generation. . . . This is a generation which searched for oxygen in the poisoned air. This generation, upon whose heads a huge meteorite from somewhere in cold space is falling, falling.”