When you walk into a theatre and the first question they ask is, “Would you like vodka? Or better vodka?” you know either way you’re a winner. If the play is a mess, at the very least you can enjoy the stiff drink. But when that introduction leads you through a worn-down circus, past a memorial service for two insects, between some dancing fops, and into a theatre with live music already underway, you can be assured you’re in for a night of equally delightful and unexpected treats. Simultaneously disorienting and comforting, the lead-in is meant to prepare you for the evening’s main event, ARTEL’s latest devised experiment, Kharmful Charms of Daniil Kharms.
As the playbill explains, Daniil Kharms was an eccentric Post Modern theatre theoretician who championed the burgeoning surrealist movement and the autonomy of art from the “real world’s” rules and logic. Dead soon after his imprisonment in the psychiatric ward of Leningrad Prison No. 1 in the 1940’s, his writing remains one of the lesser-known gems of the surrealist movement. The American Russian Theatre Ensemble Laboratory (ARTEL) has mined the records of OBERIU (Union of Real Art), Kharms’ avant-garde collective, as well as their personal store of dance, movement, and Russian drinking-song knowledge, to devise a nonlinear dreamscape true to Kharms’ colorful artistic sensibilities. As is the nature of absurdist theatre, the joy lies in the recognition of the human experience in the seemingly illogical, and ARTEL’s observations are particularly astute.
Their success lies, I believe, in the capable hands of director Olya Petrakova (aka Ms. Chief) as well as the patience the company and its sponsors has allowed in the creation of the piece. All too often, devised pieces are all process and no product. The company has gone on a fantastic journey through exercises and discovery and theory and play, but once performed, audiences are bewildered, open to the experience but unable to appreciate and enjoy the ideas that haven’t yet been fully realized or should have been cut long ago. Not so, in this case. Incubated in various forms since March 2009 and continuing to evolve throughout the run, Ms. Chief has led the clever ensemble in composing a piece which was, for the most part, free from self-indulging and lean with original content. The result leaves the audience just as bewildered, but provides oases of self-recognition, consistent bouts of hearty laughter, and a genuine sense of payoff in the end. Grotowski would be proud.
The less-than-lean moments, a few unfocused Vocal Viewpoints bits and a charming but ultimately tedious bird-beaked jury scene, do little to detract from the overall pastiche. Between the dancing and singing and whispering and plate-smashing, some elements by default lack the intention and energy to keep the piece consistent. Understandably so, it is difficult to weigh the textures of such a multidisciplinary, purposefully contradictive performance.
Much like the potato-garlic soup they were serving in the lobby the night I attended, the collective doled out generous servings of comedy with a smirk and a recipe all of their own. Between the men in tutus, the women in mustaches, the audience-interactive “Hello, Man!” sequence, and the proposal of drinking vinegar, the hilarity appealed to varying funny bones, proving the mix to be one part Animaniacs, one part Monty Python, and a dash of Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon. Nothing happens. Violence happens. The unexpected happens. Regardless of what’s happening, it’s funny.
From the lobby to the stage, the entire theatre encompassed the universe of Kharms with rich detail. Gorgeous black and white photography hung from strings on the ceiling near the theatre’s bathroom. The utilitarian backdrop of the set was a stunning deep red. Incidental music created on found instruments gave the production a backbone, while human-generated sound effects sent chills and filled the transitions with intensity and depth. The costumes were rich with detail and humor, from the tutus to the mad scientist garb, and particularly beautiful when all of the female ensemble members were draped in white. Larger than life props added to the absurdity. The one weak link was the lighting, which in general seemed oppressively dark and at times left entire faces in the dark.
ARTEL, a company of self-proclaimed “Artisanal Scientists” have been devising theatre in Los Angeles since their founding in 2005, and it shows. From their idea of creative concessions (buy a fake mustache, get a free cup of soup!) to their knack for theatrical ingenuity, their work serves to prove they are a devising company worth the evening’s experiment.