Off-Off-Broadway review: ‘The Last Futurist Lab’

Consisting of six two-play programs and a variety of free interactive events, Target Margin Theater’s latest endeavor attempts to capture the essence of the many experimental literary and dramatic forms that shook the foundations of early twentieth century Russian art and interpret it for an American audience.

“The Last Futurist Lab,” a series of plays inspired by the Russian Avant Garde, will be playing at the Bushwick Starr, 207 Starr St. in Brooklyn, through April 7.

Consisting of six two-play programs and a variety of free interactive events, Target Margin Theater’s latest endeavor attempts to capture the essence of the many experimental literary and dramatic forms that shook the foundations of early twentieth century Russian art and interpret it for an American audience almost a century after that historic moment. Encompassing such related yet varied movements as Symbolism, Futurism, the proto-absurdism of the OBERIU group, and the radical language experiments of the zaum poets, this wildly heterogeneous play festival functions as an infectiously bemusing introduction for the uninitiated, while offering eccentric interpretations of important works for those familiar with the movements’ foundational texts and playfully radical spirit.

Program A consists of “Karma Kharms (Or Yarns by Kharms)” and “Pozhar! (Or Time Machine Ignition).” The first piece is a frankly confusing and tedious collection of plays, poems, and short stories apparently inspired by the work of Daniil Kharms, OBERIU’s most popular writer. Set at an academic conference devoted to Kharms, accidentally scheduled simultaneously with an origami workshop, the actors plod through adaptations of the writer’s ingenious yet unrelated micro-fictions, struggling to forge a narrative where none exists, ending on a bewildering finale outside with the audience on the roof of the Bushwick Starr. Intended as an homage to Kharms’ keen satirical sense of quotidian social displacement, the workshop’s interference in the proceedings of the conference only serves to distract from an already muddled sequence of events, and the inclusion of a contemporary Russian pop song extolling the virtues of President Putin, while illuminating in its own right, does little to support the skit’s incoherent thesis about the confusion of existence under totalitarianism.

The second piece in Program A is an almost equally abstruse but far more entertaining and intellectually provocative presentation of Futurist values and aesthetics. Kindled by the writings of Vladimir Mayakovsky, the poster boy of Russian Futurism and early Soviet agitprop, it tells a vaguely science fiction story about the building of a time machine and the bureaucratic problems that result from it, pertaining mainly to the question of who will be allowed to use it. Mayakovsky’s later work seethes with a barely contained anger directed at the USSR’s censorship regime and a general sense of increasing bureaucratic obstruction stifling and betraying the spirit of the revolution. His suicide followed soon after his last play was closed by the censors. Given this biographic information, the production’s humorous questioning of exactly whom the future belongs to takes on a tragic overtone, endowing the piece with a gravity and intelligence that reveals itself only upon further contemplation. Throwing in some astute references to Vsevolod Meyerhold’s (the movement’s most important director) unique dialectics of performance, “Pozhar! (Or Time Machine Ignition)” might be the festival’s most accomplished work.

Program B includes the pieces “The Gray Notebook” and “The What Dance.” Described in the playbill as a “bringing to life of [Alexander] Vvedensky’s dense (but transcen-dense) musings on death and time,” “The Gray Notebook” depicts the wildly inventive poet’s staggering critique of reason through whimsical dance numbers and droll tableaus. The production’s twee sensibility mostly meshes well with Vvedensky’s mysterious aphorisms, in turns morbid and innocent in a way that makes one think of William Blake via T.S. Eliot. I found myself drawn in by the actors’ apparent sincerity, despite signs of complacent irony, often closing my eyes to better concentrate on the strange beauty and philosophical mysticism of the poetry being recited. As an actor tells the audience while standing among them, “If we experience wild non-understanding we will know that no one will be able to counter it with clarity.”

“The What Dance” is also inspired by the very short stories of Daniil Kharms, with four different actors channeling the joyful energy and meek sorrow of his various characters and the author himself. A tale of several journeys (that may ultimately be one) to destinations that seem to recede further and further away as the play draws to its conclusion, it does a far better job of capturing the emotional desolation and frustration of life in an autocracy that the other Kharms piece also tried to convey. Exuberantly performed by its enthusiastic players as a kind of circus in a minor key, their charming clowning at the outset leads them to unexpected detours through the halls of power and roads of camaraderie that leave the audience with a sense of the magnificence and inevitable waste of man’s time upon the earth by play’s end.

Programs D, E, and F will be running from March 29-April 7, organized as follows: Program D, Mayakovsky’s tragic bureaucratic satire “The Bedbug” and a cubosupremofuturistbeyondsense piece entitled “Words Express”; Program E, a new work entitled “Time and Death…A Dream Play” and “Explodity!,” a performance piece based on the work of Silver Age poet and zaum co-inventor Alexei Kruchenykh; Program F, Alexander Blok’s Symbolist lyrical drama “The Puppet Show” and “Troika,” a concert-play inspired by the work of Kharms and other members of the OBERIU group. Though I have yet to see these programs, they promise to offer thoughtful ruminations upon the meaning and legacy of these artists whose work attempted to respond to a dying world giving birth to an uncertain future full of perilous hope and unknowable possibilities.


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