Adapted by Robert Ross Parker
From Nikolai Erdman’s The Suicide
With literal translation by Marina Raydun.
Directed by Bob Kruse
To Die or not to Die?
In 1928, The Suicide, a comedy about death written by Nicolai Erdman, was so admired that three producers fought over it. As it turned out, the winner, Vladimir Meyerhold, actually lost because the Russian Government banned the play!
The admirer’s saw a fun-filled, tongue-in-cheek satiric comedy punctuating society’s ills. The censors saw a danger to the regime, a threat to the Soviet State. The play disappeared, as did the principals: playwright Erdman was sent to Siberia and never wrote another play, and Meyerhold was ultimately tortured and executed!
Out of the ashes of this sad history, Robert Ross Parker has taken full advantage of our free speech rights to present a delicious adaptation of this farce.
The story is the stuff of fable; unhappy husband/farmer Semyon Semyonovich Podsakelnikov is a failure. For a brief time he thinks success may be his if he only had a tuba and there is a humor-packed scene as he tries to master the instrument. But he fails here too. He doesn’t quite reach total despair until his companions point out that he has been out of work for three years, his wife is supporting him and — in addition — no one really likes him (with the possible exception of this wife, played Jenifer Henry Starewich).
Suicide might be an answer- – he could be remembered as a hero. He takes up the idea, but becomes distracted and confused when each of his buddies wants him to write a suicide note explaining that he died for one of their particular causes: the people, the intelligentsia, etc. All are exploiters and charlatans.
The strokes are broad — the characters are caricatures: the compliant wife, the ditzy mother-in-law, the neighbors, the butcher, the vamp, a priest, a mail-man, the undertaker, and several “suspicious fellows,” all played with great verve by the energetic ensemble in multiple roles. Parker pared the cast from 27 to an essential six (who play all of the 27 parts) and added two musicians.
Will he or won’t he shoot himself? The suspense builds when he tries to build up courage by counting down before shooting — moving from 1,000 to a mere 15. It would be a spoiler to tell what happens. Suffice to say that the character learns that, as he says, “Life starts 30 minutes before dying.” His dilemma exaggerates the economic and social problems of all societies — then and now — in Russia or elsewhere. Humor is a great illuminator.
The set — designed by the Stage Tree Group company members — is hilarious with a sign over the single, mid-stage door announcing the setting: a specific apartment or even the ‘People’s toilet” — nothing subtle here. In addition, the entire back wall is covered with lines of clothing hanging out to dry. This is irrelevant to the plot, but serves to create the kind of world the characters inhabited: an overpopulated tenement.
Goodbye Cruel World has seldom been performed and this is the first mounting in the Midwest, offering Chicagoans both the pleasure of the comedy and a unique opportunity to get a behind-the-scenes clue as to what kind of works were censored by the Communist government.
Beverly Friend, Ph.D.
Member: American Theater Critics Assn.
Strange Tree Group, at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, www.theaterwit.org, 773-975-8150, Tickets $25. Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m., through July 22. Running time 95 minutes with no intermission.