Directed by Jack Dugan Carpenter
Produced by The Plagiarists
Playing at Red Tape Theater, Chicago
This playful pastiche of “pop culture” runs hot and cold, never quite delivering on the goods.
Opening last night at The Red Tape Theater, the Plagiarists’s MATRYOSHKA is a reworking of One Thousand and One Nights—the collection of stories and folk tales compiled in Arabic during the Islamic Golden Age—adapted to the story conventions of our own era. The quintessential framing device is more or less retained, replacing the Persian King Shahryar with a hooded menace (Robert Montgomery) straight from the reels of a B-Grade slasher flick. And his wife Scheherazade is here morphed into the stock female victim (Jessica Saxvik), tied with thick ropes to a chair and threatened ominously with a hunting knife. Attempting to delay the moment of her imminent death, the young woman ensnares her would-be assailant in an exhaustive bout of storytelling—fortuitously enacted for us by an ensemble of eight female actors.
The stories unfold as a near continuous series of narrative insets—hence the title, matryoshka being the Russian word for the infamous nesting dolls. Pulling indiscriminately from the annals of “pop culture,” playwright Gregory Peters makes sweeping cultural references to everything ranging from the short stories of H.P. Lovecraft to the mobster movies of Scorsese and Coppola to the zombie flicks of George Romero to the cop dramas of TV and beyond. The assemblage alone is impressive and much amusement is drawn from finding novel ways of “reframing” the stories, bring us deeper and deeper into newer levels of narrative self-reflexivity. Indeed, “quotation” is Peters medium of choice, and as a work of pastiche, it retains much of the humorously self-conscious stylizings of a Joss Whedon.
Still, after an hour and forty minutes the premise starts to run thin. As the harrowing framing device of the first scene—which provides the audience with a continuous thread of narrative tension—recedes further and further into the distance, the emotional tension slowly peters out. New characters come on stage, we perhaps chortle at the stock conventions we recognize, and then they’re gone again never to reappear. As a veiled commentary on our throw-away culture—always eager to move on to the next big thing—MATRYOSHKA makes its point. But occasionally at the cost of considerable tedium. For by the time we’re running close to our second hour, the whole experience starts to feel like a nonsensical blur, not quite achieving an absurdist circular structure but nonetheless going nowhere, as though slowly following a geometrical line into an infinite horizon. Without giving too much away, the ending is hurried and forced, invoking an incredulous deus ex machina before wrapping the whole thing up in an (almost too acerbically) ironic ending. Damn hipsters.
Performances on the whole run hot and cold. Jessica Saxvik and Robert Montgomery in the play’s opening scene are genuinely riveting—almost so much so that the ensuing production never quite matches its initial rush of terror. Rachel Miller, transformed into a Godfather-esque goodfella is deliciously pitch-perfect, settling into a husky voice and legitimately imposing physicality. And Mallory Nees gives a standout performance as a soft-spoken femme fatale. When its working, MATRYOSHKA feels delightfully tongue-in-cheek. But when its not, it feels like a college improv class for beginners.
MATRYOSHKA is the sort of playful fare that might work exceptionally well with thirty to forty minutes trimmed off its tail end. Perhaps as a one-act in a Fringe Festival. Yet whatever commentary it thinks it’s making about misogyny and media violence feels flattened by a narrative structure that never builds and never resolves. In the end, it seems odd that a piece so driven by a winking self-awareness of cultural forms never quite becomes aware of its own.
Anthony J. Mangini
Reviewed Wednesday, March 6th, 2013.
Running time is approximately 1 hour and 40 minutes with no intermission.
MATRYOSHKA runs until April 13th, 2013. Red Tape Theater is located at 621 W. Broadway (2nd Floor), Chicago, IL 60657. Tickets can be obtained through Brown Paper Tickets at www.brownpapertickets.com or by calling 1-800-838-3006. Check out their Theater In Chicago listing at https://www.theatreinchicago.com/matryoshka/6146/.