By Venus Zarris
During the trials and tribulations of toiling away making something from nothing, it is a common thing for artists to doubt their efforts. It’s an almost given that at some point in the frustration of creation they will ask themselves, “Am I making an impact on anything or anyone?”
In the midst of this dark place of questioning we have historically seen an answer that comes from an even darker place, sinister actually. That answer is the political oppression of artistic expression. You know that you’re on to something when the powers-that-be deem you an ‘enemy.’ When Nicolai Erdman wrote the play The Suicide in 1928, Joseph Stalin sent him to Siberia before the play was even produced. Goodbye Cruel World is an adaptation of this play that landed the playwright in a brutally notorious frozen hell on earth.
Sounds too serious to be entertaining? Don’t be ridiculous! Oppressors realize that polemics are best served funny.
The play opens with a husband and wife sleeping head-to-toe in a tiny bed. They wake only to argue over a dinner sausage. Seems more silly than subversive but as the ludicrous exposition ofGoodbye Cruel World unfolds, we see a clever examination of Stalin’s Russia that sadly speaks to today’s America. Desperate times beget desperation and that opens the door for manipulation, be that personal or political.
Semyon has no job but plans to become a world famous tuba player after reading a brief tutorial. When the “fool proof” how-to pamphlet proves his idea to be ridiculous, and proves him a fool, he falls into deep depression and contemplates suicide. In this bleak economic setting, nothing is to be squandered. His existential crisis (and possible ‘final solution’) becomes a commodity to be haggled over by actresses, priests and politicians. The attention propels Semyon from nobody to potential hero/martyr, but even this nincompoop eventually realizes that he is being parlayed for the personal agendas of others. Throughout this absurd game of life, death, glory and stupidity: comedy ensues.
The Strange Tree Group takes the complexities of early 20th Century Russia and translates them into contemporary anxiety with a stylized vision and fearless execution. It is hard to imagine a piece from this time and place to be frolicking, but Strange Tree manages a wonderfully entertaining romp in the midst of the pending funeral dirge. The cast is delightful (working overtime playing multiple roles), the musical accompaniment is exceptional and the visual design renders the entire production a perfect propaganda poster. While the pace lags at times, Goodbye Cruel World is a wonderful example of playful political satire.
We’ll never know if Erdman’s farcical play could have toppled Stalin’s regime as it was never given the chance, but playwright Robert Ross Parker’s adaptation of this deceptively slapstick story is most certainly a thought-provoking hoot.
(“Goodbye Cruel World” runs through July 22nd at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.773-975-8150)
Goodbye Cruel World photos by Tyler Core.