Fighting City Hall
What began as a play for Austin by a Ukrainian writer has become a dispatch from the front lines of a war
We Austinites like to see ourselves as pretty engaged politically – all that activity with neighborhood associations, local long-range planning initiatives, city commissions, and the like, plus just generally working to keep our town a blue dot in the field of red that is Texas. However, a look across the ocean at Kiev gives us a very different view of citizens' political engagement. People taking to the streets in the hundreds of thousands to protest their government, occupying their city hall for more than two months, facing snipers and riot police and beating them back, and ultimately forcing the ouster of their country's corrupt president. It's a world away from ours.
But those worlds come crashing together this week in Dulcey and Roxy at City Hall, a new play in which a Ukrainian visiting Austin issues a warning about our broken political system. The notion of a Kiev native playing Cassandra in the land of armadillos and breakfast tacos may sound unlikely, but it springs from the reality of its author being a Ukrainian who's visited Austin and found an audience for his plays here. Maksym Kurochkin, one of the most inventive writers in the modern Russian theatre, was brought to town by Graham Schmidt, a director who's such an enthusiast for Russian dramas that he not only started a company so he could mount them in Austin (Breaking String Theater, named for that distinctive sound in Act II of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard) but also founded a New Russian Drama Festival to hook more locals on the talents currently tearing up Moscow's stages. As featured playwright for the 2012 festival, Kurochkin was flown here and treated to staged readings of two of his plays, as well as a full production of a third, The Schooling of Bento Bonchev. Austin's response to Kurochkin's work was so strong that before the year was out, Schmidt had mounted a full staging of the playwright's Vodka, Fucking, and Television. Then, because of that and Kurochkin's feeling that both the artists and audiences in Austin "got" his work, Schmidt commissioned Kurochkin to write a play to be premiered here, the only requirement being that it "be inspired by, or concern, Austin."
From that came Dulcey and Roxy, which had its first breath of life last September in a reading at the 2013 Lyubimovka Playwrighting Festival in Moscow. According to Schmidt, that initial draft seemed to mock Austinites' pride in their city and progressive reputation, undercutting them with corruption in the mayor's office and a dysfunctional city council. The visitor, Vadim, seeks "to save Austinites from themselves and redeem civic life, which the Ukrainian complains has been lost where he's come from."
Now, lest you get all het up over this outsider trashing our Eden-on-the-Colorado, know that Kurochkin feels the city in the play "has little in common with Austin. ... It's more likely an imaginary place, something rather fantastic," he adds. "I have no particular deep knowledge of Austin or how its political system is structured. I purposefully did nothing to mask my lack of knowledge, making that one of the irritants of the play. I want the spectator to experience inner protest, I want people to say all the time, 'That's all wrong, this guy doesn't understand a thing.' But by the end, despite this negation, I want people to experience a connection to the tale that the play tells."
In truth, Kurochkin's play had more to do with his homeland than any place in Texas. Even before his November trip to Austin to workshop the play, the political situation in Ukraine was roiling. Two weeks after Dulcey and Roxy's first reading here, the trigger for the crisis there was pulled: Ukraine's president, Viktor Yanukovych, suspended talks with the European Union over a trade agreement to pursue closer ties with Russia. This pivot toward Putin sent masses of protesters into the streets of Kiev, first 100,000, then 300,000, and in mid-December, 800,000. In January, Kurochkin had to see for himself what was happening and went to Kiev. Inspired by acts of courage he witnessed on the Maidan – Independence Square – Kurochkin revisited Dulcey and Roxy in early February. But rather than rewrite the workshopped material, he just added to it: 25 pages in which the Austinites have taken their Ukrainian prophet's advice and, says Schmidt, "begun dismantling their city, erecting barricades, and creating a sort of permanent revolution in the style of Kiev's protesters." But Vadim returns and tells the Austinites that he made a mistake and that "his faith in Austinites and Ukrainians has been redeemed because he's seen the strength of the Ukrainian people." (Kurochkin also added a monologue by himself, the Author, describing the violent attacks on the Kiev protesters and their inspiring uprising against Yanukovych.)
In sending the new material to Schmidt, Kurochkin explained that the first part of the play had been written by "a heartbroken and cynical man." The second part, though, was written by "somebody who felt inspired by what he saw." He didn't want to revise the first part, preferring to write new material that reflected his thoughts on Ukraine.
"It was important for me to preserve the 'layered' character of the play's development," Kurochkin wrote in an email. "It was important for me to freeze in place my lack of knowledge of the future. And the sensation of a world that is perched on the verge of change, one that is shrinking, is pregnant with something new and frightening, and is, at the same time, beautiful. I now know more than I did a year ago. But I fought the temptation to 'correct' the characters' behavior to make the play more timely. Better it remain clumsy and incomplete. But it retains the inner despair of a person who understands that the world, to which he is accustomed, is coming to an end. One of my tasks was to share that sensation with people whose world will not change soon. That's naive, but this is a naive play."
It's also a remarkable play in its intersection with the crisis in Ukraine, says John Freedman, an American who has been covering Russian theatre for The Moscow Times since 1992, written about Kurochkin extensively (most recently, just last week), and translated several of his plays into English. He's the translator for Dulcey and Roxy as well, and although he's grown accustomed to the playwright's ability to surprise him – "Almost every play Max sends me looks like nothing he has done before. He has an extraordinary ability to renew himself and strike out in unexpected directions, all the while building on past experience." – this one threw him for a loop when he saw it. "It was like Max decided to pull out everything that anyone wants in and from a play, and left in everything that he alone wanted and knew was important to him. You feel the strong, certain hand of the playwright moving you and your reactions like chess pieces, but you don't always understand why."
Somehow Kurochkin conjured in Austin a perceptive, even prescient image of what is occurring in Ukraine. "What's fascinating is that this reflection or refraction – because it isn't a mirror image – has revealed itself to go deeper than any of us on the inside realized at first," Freedman writes. "I think Max may be more surprised than any of us. But when he realized he was echoing and responding to events in Ukraine, he went with it strong and sure. I think the connections will be obvious in the thoughts and attitudes of the mysterious lead character. Two or three months ago, Vadim's advice to build a city in a circular fashion, rather than radial, in order to protect it from invaders probably would have struck many as a WTF moment. Not any more, I don't think!"
Indeed, the developments in Ukraine and Russia since Kurochkin finished part two of Dulcey and Roxy have made the play even more notable from an international standpoint. He had written that before the bloodiest confrontations between protesters and police in Kiev, Yanukovych's vanishing act, the Crimean vote to rejoin Russia, and the takeover of government buildings in eastern Ukraine by pro-Russian forces (and, some say, Russian forces). In recent weeks, tensions have also escalated within Russia, between the government and artists. A new Russian Ministry of Culture document titled "Foundation of State Cultural Politics" states that art that doesn't "contain spiritual and moral content, or which exerts a negative influence on society" must not receive state funding and that "the state must suppress negative impact on the public consciousness." In that vein, an April issue of the Kultura newspaper contained a front-page attack on contemporary playwrights in Russia, one of whom was Kurochkin, bemoaning the fact that state funds "were spent on sleaze, obscenities, pornography, and on worthless shamanism disguised as innovation." That may help explain why the Moscow Cultural Ministry froze all funds to support a festival of contemporary Russian drama being produced in D.C. by the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. (The move forced the festival's cancellation.) These tensions were not in play when Dulcey and Roxy was first developed, but now the play has become a direct dispatch to our city from an artist on the front lines of this political battle. That's made it all the more important for Austinites to hear.
Dulcey and Roxy at City Hall runs May 2-17, Thursday-Saturday, 8pm, at Salvage Vanguard Theater, 2803 Manor Rd. For more information, call 512/761-3247 or visit www.breakingstring.com.