The title may sound heavy, but this is a black comedy, given an artful and playful new staging by Paper Chairs
Reviewed by Stacy Alexander Smith, Fri., May 23, 2014
The SuicideThe Off Center, 2211 Hidalgo, 512/686-6621
Through May 31
Running Time: 2 hr., 35 min.
Remember Easter when you were a kid, gazing into that magical, secret world of the sugar egg? Paper Chairs' set for The Suicide inspires a childlike sense of awe, and set designer Lisa Laratta proves herself again to be one of the most talented artists working in the field today. Meticulously balanced geometric elements typified by exquisite attention to detail in both color and texture give the viewer clues that Laratta is an artist in the truest sense of the word. Here, her background in and mastery of painting, graphic design, and art history spring vividly to life in the 3-D world of Russian depressive Semyon Semyonovich Podsekalnikov. In addition, Laratta and Elizabeth Doss make a swell co-directing duo, and many of their blocking decisions are inventive – key in helping audiences engage with the dated and otherwise culturally alienating material of this 85-year-old satire of early Soviet culture.
Lighting designers Natalie George and Jen Rogers round out this brilliant technical team with support from technical directors Mason Baker and Simon Ghezzi. Although the play is long and takes place in front of a single backdrop, George and Rogers' expert lighting decisions make this solid set adaptable, transforming a whimsical palette into a bleak wasteland of gray, as appropriate to the characters' changing states of mind.
If you're thinking you might not feel up to the emotional demands of a play about suicide, think again. Despite the heavy title, Nikolai Erdman's play is really a black comedy cum political satire. Written at the onset of the Stalinist regime, it was banned by Soviet authorities, the playwright was exiled to Siberia, and the influential director, Vsevolod Meyerhold, was executed amid dubious claims of espionage. Thus, mocking lines like "In the old days, people with ideas were willing to die for them!" sting. Yet it's a helpful kind of hurt as the suicidal protagonist, Semyon, listens thoughtfully to a host of impassioned lobbyists as they tell him not to refrain from taking his own life, but to do it with purpose. It's difficult for Americans to wrap their heads around such oppressive circumstances, but wonderful stagings such as this one can serve as an uplifting wake – an opportunity to applaud these artists and their tremendous sacrifices.
While this is not a musical per se, the music (including original tunes by Laura Freeman) is remarkable, with performers playing the banjo, guitar, tuba, violin – and singing together playfully. This ensemble work figures into several dramatic moments as well, particularly in act two, when most of the large cast is onstage en masse. Casting on the whole is spot on, with a nice variety of types, ages, and ethnicities. As Semyon's delightfully bumfuzzled mother-in-law, grande dame Lana Dieterich holds on to her crown as a crowd-pleaser.
Where else can you get a history lesson from a priest in high heels? Put this on your list of things to do.