Witty juxtapositions season the heavy-duty, thought-provoking nature of 'Slavs!'

January 12, 1995|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

The funniest, blackest comedy in Tony Kushner's "Slavs! (Thinking About the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness)" takes place in the Pan-Soviet Archives for the Study of Cerebro-Cephalognomical Historico-Biological Materialism -- where the Soviet government studies the brains of its departed leaders.

There, a drunk lesbian security guard (Katie MacNichol) with a spiky hairdo tells a lower-level Communist Party official (Lee Wilkof) that when she gets bored, she likes to shake the jars and watch the brain cells "whirl like snowflakes in a crystal snowball."

These embalmed brains, however, are also a metaphor for a society whose theoretical foundations have been tucked away -- overlooked or forgotten -- under glass. Examining those theories and conjecturing about the future is the core of Kushner's 90-minute drama, receiving its area premiere at Center Stage under the direction of Lisa Peterson.

"Slavs!" is an off-shoot of "Perestroika," the second part of Kushner's seven-hour, Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning epic, "Angels in America." About a third of the new play consists of scenes originally written as prologues to various acts in "Perestroika."

But length isn't the only difference between "Slavs!" and "Angels." Unlike the fully realized characters in the earlier play, most of the characters in "Slavs!" seem to exist more as representatives of different points of view than as flesh-and-blood human beings. (The main exception is Caitlin O'Connell's highly empathetic portrayal of a pediatric oncologist.) The result is a far less emotionally involving play, but one that is still intensely thought-provoking.

Not surprisingly, much of that thought-provoking quality stems from a theme "Slavs!" shares with "Angels" -- resistance to change. Everyone talks politics in "Slavs!" from "the world's oldest living Bolshevik" (Ronny Graham) to an 8-year-old cancer victim (played at Tuesday's preview by Maren E. Rosenberg, who will alternate with Meredith Friend). But actual change turns out to be like the weather: everyone talks about it, but no one does anything about it.

Kushner heightens the stakes by setting "Slavs!" at two periods poised on the brink of change. The play begins in 1985, on the eve of glasnost, and continues in 1992, after the break-up of the Soviet Union. While the text, particularly at the end, may be didactic, one of its most tantalizing aspects is that it doesn't propose a solution. Instead, Kushner ends with a cautionary epilogue set in heaven. This is not the traditional heaven, but the deeply reactionary place he created in "Perestroika": a heaven of eternal stasis and boredom.

This "gloomy, derelict" heaven is typical of the unlikely juxtapositions that illuminate "Angels" and also lend a humorous and imaginative spark to "Slavs!" The best example is a prop -- an icon with a portrait of Lenin painted over the image of a Russian saint. The oncologist has been told the icon is "a great worker of miracles," and its powers are represented with delightful theatricality by lighting designer Robert Wierzel and set designer Michael Yeargan.

A recurring phrase in "Slavs!" describes various attributes -- sorrow, fantasy, naivete -- as "the spiritual genius of the Slavic peoples." Based on "Slavs!" "willingness to change" would not seem to be among those attributes -- either of the Slavic peoples, or by extension, of any peoples.

The ever-ambitious Kushner has again saddled himself with material that isn't easy to dramatize -- much less to accept. Squeamish theatergoers may be put off by the play's language or its explicit depiction of homosexuality. But what Kushner hopes will really make audiences squirm is the underlying picture of the decrepit status quo. Center Stage does a fine job aiding and abetting that goal.

'SLAVS!'

Where: Center Stage, Head Theater, 700 N. Calvert St.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 7:30 p.m. Sundays; matinees 2 p.m. Sundays and most Saturdays, 1 p.m. Jan. 25, through Feb. 18. Audio-described performance 8 p.m. Jan. 17; sign-interpreted performance 2 p.m. Feb. 18

Tickets: $23 and $28

Call: (410) 332-0033; TDD: (410) 332-4240

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