Editors' pick



Editorial Review

‘Oxygen,’ heavy and fascinating
By Celia Wren
Thursday, April 11, 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 the 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.

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.

Taffety Punk takes musical ‘leap of faith’
By Maura Judkis
Friday, April 5, 2013

When Taffety Punk decided to take on Ivan Vyrypaev’s “Oxygen” for the first time last May, director Lise Bruneau said the company chose the work because it was “the sort of piece that you will go away thinking about for days and days.” Or, for months and months -- especially when, nine months later, an event predicted in one of the play’s monologues came true.

“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.”

On Feb. 15, a meteorite streaked across the sky in Chelyabinsk, Russia, injuring more than 1,200 people. It also set off a flurry of text messages among the cast and crew of “Oxygen,” who were preparing for the remount of the show.

“We knew the writer was prescient, but that was kind of ridiculous,” Bruneau said. “Of course, it was the very first thing that all of us thought about. Not, ‘Is the world ending?’ ”

Before the sky began to fall, Taffety Punk had already produced its version of Vyrypaev’s play and 2009 film about two mismatched lovers trying to navigate bleak lives in Russia. The conceptual show is structured like the tracks of an album, with the two actors, Esther Williamson and Mark Krawczyk, performing their monologues to music.

“How can I keep it attractive by saying it’s an onslaught?” Bruneau said. “But it really is, the music and words are coming at you from all sides. It’s a brisk and involving hour . . . the text and the music are constantly bouncing off of each other.”

Taffety Punk commissioned all 10 tracks from such local bands as E.D. Sedgwick, Jupiter Rex and the Caribbean. After the musicians watched an early run of the play, they were given only a few parameters to score their scene: no vocals, lest they compete with the monologues, and to think in the realm of “euro-synth electronica” to match the play’s setting and bring a commonality to the tracks. For musicians, it proved to be an intellectual challenge.

“It’s like you’re writing music for a play that doesn’t exist yet. You start writing for the script, but the play itself doesn’t exist until the actors have gotten their teeth into it,” said musician Kathy Cashel. “That’s really different than writing music for a band or writing music on your own. Not only is it a collaborative thing, but it’s also a leap of faith -- which direction you’re going with it, and where it’s going to land when you get there.”

Michael Kentoff of the Caribbean was given another assignment in addition to his two tracks: to create a secret composition for one scene in which the actors would listen to it on iPods, never giving the audience a chance to hear it.

“I thought it was kind of cool, writing a secret track that nobody would hear but two people in the scene. The motivation was different because I was writing for the actors,” he said. “They’re keeping something from the audience, something tangible and real.”

When the musicians came together to see how their tracks were integrated into the play, Kentoff said he was surprised by how well they meshed.

“The risk you have in having multiple composers is that it’s going to be choppy and it’s going to be the Whitman Sampler,” he said.

Instead, the tracks are consistent enough that Bruneau said they could stand alone as an album.

“It’s incredible lounge music,” she said. “It gets intense at times, but I absolutely look forward to having a cocktail party with it playing in the background.”

And just as the music has stayed faithful to the original production, so, too, will the text -- despite the real-life appearance of the meteor. Bruneau considered referencing the February event but probably will not.

“This is the thing about making a comment on work that lives in the world . . . you can run the risk of losing the author’s truth,” she said. “In this situation, the author’s truth overrides the cute wink of the current event. That is the thing that must be protected at all costs.”