Taffety Punk takes on ‘Oxygen’


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

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.”

Oxygen

Through April 26 at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 Seventh St. SE. 202-355-9441. www.taffetypunk.com. $15.

Maura Judkis covers culture, food, and the arts for the Weekend section and Going Out Guide.
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