'Machine Gunner' hits target at Theatre Project

Edgy Russian play marks local debut of the Generous Company

  • Actor James Knight as the Young Man in "I Am the Machine Gunner," a play by Yury Klavdiev produced by the Generous Company and presented by the Theatre Project through Sept. 12.
Actor James Knight as the Young Man in "I Am the Machine… (Baltimore Sun )
September 09, 2010|By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

Move over, Single Carrot Theatre — there's another edgy ensemble in town. The six-year-old Generous Company, previously based in New York and a few other places, recently relocated to Baltimore, where it is making its local debut with an intriguing production of a 2008 Russian play at Theatre Project.

Yury Klavdiev's "I Am the Machine Gunner" (translated by John Freedman) takes the audience into the conflicted mind of a gang member, identified only as Young Man, the play's sole character. Portrayed by James Knight, this guy becomes almost too real for comfort.

He sports tattoos and "Situation"-qualifying abs; he spits and grabs his crotch. He drops the f-bomb frequently. The Young Man says he wants to believe that "life is good," but he keeps bumping into a less optimistic reality.

Obsessed with memories of his grandfather's stories about fighting the Nazis, he repeatedly finds himself conjuring up the horrors of that brutal combat. All the while, he's also trapped in his own contemporary version of World War II, with hideous battles over turf and what passes for honor, waged by his fellow urban fighters in today's Russia. The Young Man concedes that he doesn't know the point of what he does with the gang, but he can't figure out how to give it up.

In a brisk, mostly arresting 50 minutes, a lot of emotions and issues are triggered by this toggling between the past and the present. The text slips into cliche from time to time, but also adds touches of poetry amid the raw street language and all the chilling descriptions of separated limbs and eviscerated organs. War movies have long been super-explicit about such things, so it's remarkable to realize how freshly shocking mere verbal descriptions can still be.

It's possible to wish for more depth and breadth from the play, and maybe for a cleaner, more linear flow, too, but it all manages to hold together and deliver a punch in an efficient, surprisingly potent manner.

Knight gives an impressive performance as the Young Man. He conveys conversational passages of the script with such naturalness that it wouldn't be surprising if some audience members felt like talking back to him. And when Knight slips into the character of the grandfather to relive unspeakable scenes of the war, the actor deftly shows the weight of those memories registering physically, as much as mentally.

Director David M. White, a founding member of Generous Company and a Towson University faculty member, keeps the play moving smoothly on a bare stage effectively lit by James Alfred Rose Johnson. Iaeden Hovorka's excellent sound effects add a good deal to the production.

Something of a visual coup is delivered when the play reaches a peak of tension and grittiness. It might be just a little over the top, but it sure drives home the stark fate of so many people pulled every day, everywhere, into the ugly spiral of intimidation and violence.

It will be interesting to see what Generous Company does next here. The troupe, called Immanent Eye for a couple of years, was founded in 2004 and participated in the 2005 New York Fringe Festival. With "I Am the Machine Gunner," the company reveals a sharp aim.

tim.smith@ baltsun.com

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If you go

"I Am the Machine Gunner" will be performed at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday at Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St. Tickets are $10 to $20. Call 410-752-8558 or go to missiontix.com.

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