A Hero of His Times, With a Passport

by John J. Hanlon

in National Conference

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(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Survive| Thrive} blog salon curated by Caridad Svich.)

A couple of weeks ago, I found myself in the strange environs of a banker’s office, arranging for an international wire transfer to Moscow.

This particular banker had a slight Southern drawl, and as he entered numbers from a form I’d given him into his computer, he told me the story of his brother’s sojourn through Russia.  This seemed to be a genuine point of connection, something that made my otherwise pro forma request interesting to him.

“MAKs’m KuROACHkin?” he queried, making sure he had the recipient’s name correct.

“Yes, that’s right,” I replied, as nonchalantly as possible, sensing that it would probably be both futile and pointless to attempt to correct his pronunciation of the name of the playwright (and friend) to whom I was wiring the money, Maksym Kurochkin.

This transaction was long overdue.  I was sending Maksym his share of the royalties from the last three productions of Vodka, Fucking, and Television.  During the past year and a half, my translation of the play had been staged by Austin’s Breaking String Theater, by Acting Unlimited in Lafayette, Louisiana and by 5pound Theatre in Melbourne, Australia.

Today, I find myself trying to figure out what it is about the play that keeps attracting producers and, especially, how it is that this most distinctly Russian piece in Maksym’s oeuvre keeps connecting with non-Russian audiences.

As those who are familiar with Kurochkin’s work know, Maksym, though part of the generation behind the “New Russian Drama” phenomenon that emerged in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, sets each of his plays in a completely different world.  From 17th-century France (Mooncrazed) to post-apocalyptic New York (Fighter Class “Medea”), these plays are written in a wide range of dramatic keys, yet they all share that certain Kurochkin je ne sais quoi that makes them ingenious.  Acknowledging my bias, I would say that while many young Russian playwrights focus their documentary gaze on the undeniably fascinating post-Soviet society, Maksym writes for eternity.

So my quandary is this: if what makes Maksym’s work extraordinary is the combination of his education as a historian, his training as a playwright, and his native gift of imagination, then why has his most produced play been the one that most bears the New Russian Drama stamp, the one whose themes and language come right out of a Moscow loitering at the threshold of the 21st century, gazing at its paunch, speculating about how it will fit in, flailing about in search of spermatozoa for a new Russian DNA?

Prologue:  Baltimore

Truth be told, I first began asking this question about five years ago, when I learned that Vodka, Fucking, and Television had been selected for production as part of the Center for International Theatre Development’s “Russia Season” based at Towson University in Baltimore.  When Robyn Quick, the production’s dramaturg, asked what attracts me to Kurochkin’s plays, I made this observation about what they have in common:

…there is something at the core of all of Maksym’s plays that makes them inherently worthwhile, and that is the human heart.  Typically, whether as a reader or a spectator, you’re about three quarters of the way through this hilarious, thought-provoking, wild theatrical romp when you suddenly recognize that the play is not about female fighter pilots of some apocalyptic future, or Cyrano deBergerac, or a struggling Russian writer, or the captain who rescued people from the Titanic disaster – it’s about YOU…  Maksym’s ability to create ingenious works for the theater that hit you in the gut and take your breath away is what keeps me coming back to him.

So, if I’m right about that, if it is the plays’ universality, their ability to connect with audiences of any stripe, that elevates them above the documentary, even voyeuristic, Russo-topical stuff of most of his peers, then all of them should be able to cross borders.  The one play that might not translate, it would seem, is the one he’s set squarely in Moscow, circa 2000, with an unmistakably Russian protagonist struggling to resist the temptations of three vices, all of which are painted in unmistakably Russian hues.

Act I: Austin

It is Breaking String’s Graham Schmidt, more than any other American producer, who deserves the credit for recognizing the genius of Maksym’s work – and for taking the risk of staging a play whose title caused not only puzzlement among his theater company’s supporters, but outrage.  When Graham first announced that Breaking String would be producing the play in November of 2012, the company lost dozens of Facebook followers.  What is remarkable, however, is that within a few weeks, they had gained twice as many followers as had been lost.  Two different demographics?  Probably.  This play is not for the faint of heart or the fastidious of taste.

It is, as it turns out, for Austin.  As Graham wrote to me,

Robert Faires, who is a very influential critic in these parts, put his finger on the fact that Max might as well have been born here.  The kind of immediacy one finds in his writing, the irreverence and inventiveness of it, is just perfect for our thriving fringe scene.  It’s going to fit in perfectly to artistic conversations that are going on right here.

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(Three posters by Derek Kolluri and Liz Fisher for Breaking String Theater’s production in Austin, with Noel Gaulin (Hero), Joey Hood (Vodka), Adriene Mishler (Fucking), and Jude Hickey (Television).  Photos by Will Hollis Photography.)  

So there was one answer, or rather three answers, to my question about why Vodka, Fucking, and Television can cross borders:  immediacy, irreverence, and inventiveness.  It is a play for the youth, and for the young at heart, of any country.

Act II:  Melbourne

And indeed, six months later, the play would be produced on the other side of the globe – and enjoy the same sort of critical acclaim and popular success among the youthful spirited theatergoers of Australia.  This time it was Jason Cavanagh, Artistic Director of 5pound Theatre, who rolled the dice on Kurochkin.  But while Breaking String had unwittingly discovered a cleft between its older supporters, who had lapped up the company’s productions of Chekhov, and the new followers attracted by Kurochkin’s iconoclasm, 5pound aimed to yoke the two together.

5Pound e-flier
(Flyer by Jason Cavanagh for 5pound Theatre’s production in Melbourne.  Dmitri Pronin and Jack Beeby pictured.)

“2Short Russians” is the name of the show the company created to signify its presentation of a one-act play by Chekhov, The Bear, alongside Vodka, Fucking, and Television.  The two works would be performed by a single cast of actors, separated by an intermission.  To judge by the published reviews, it was a winning combination.  “The plays are only slightly thematically linked,” observed DJ Pearce for TheatrePeople.com, “both containing characters of excess and indulgence, but the genius comes in their tone and direction – a self-destructive playfulness and absolute fearlessness, with a healthy dose of absurd humour.”  Playfulness, fearlessness, and absurdity – were these the Australian equivalents for the inventiveness, immediacy, and irreverence that had been highlighted in Austin?

Perhaps, but in Melbourne it seemed to be a fourth i-word –  “identification” – that electrified the space and left the audience buzzing about the show, enough to demand a one-week extension.  On this point, Pearce lauded the performance of Jack Beeby as “The Hero,” the possibly ironic, possibly not, name of Kurochkin’s protagonist:

…he instilled the character with such a likable quality that – despite the fact that the Hero is lazy, drunk, and possibly an adulterer, the audience really wants him to be successful in his quest for self improvement. Additionally, I have never seen the fourth wall broken so forcefully – for an actor to reach out to an audience in such a way during a performance is terrifying, but the script called for it….

Here again is the immediacy of the play, which, combined with a sense of personal relevance, captivates audiences even though they may have no knowledge of conditions in contemporary Russia.

Here it is worth noting another factor that distinguishes the play from the rest of Kurochkin’s work:  it is the only one without a single stage direction.  I have often remarked, when speaking with directors, that with this gesture Maksym appears to be offering an open invitation, one that encourages total creative freedom in design and vision.  To get specific, it is up to each director to decide how to represent the three title vices – and on what plane of reality the action will take place.

Some choose to do this simply, with three actors occupying a realistic set the whole time.  But most take a different tack, as Tim Carney, writing for BroadwayWorld.com, emphasized in his review of the Melbourne production:

Jason Cavanagh’s direction of this piece is stunning. He incorporates technology throughout this script in a way that highlights its contemporary nature, while still managing to keep the play’s intimacy and core value. You are left wondering whether Kurochkin’s play is a personal confession or a snapshot of a generation at the turn of the 21st century.

Although television is hardly a 21st-century device, it is video designers who have taken the most liberty in attempting to convey the power of this force in The Hero’s life (of special note is Lowell Bartholomee’s award-winning work for the Austin production).  So the creative use of technology is one trick that lures spectators for these shows, but that alone cannot account for the box office success.  It is rather to this notion of “a snapshot of a generation” that I think we must turn in order to comprehend the play’s wide-ranging appeal.

Act III:  Lafayette

We were children during the Seventies.  Now we’re dangling between two self-satisfied generations, like an absurd pair of camel nuts.  We are nobodies, we’re nothing – we work in advertising and magazines, we’re a bunch of archaic, spastic crabs.  We’re not entirely of this earth, although we’d like to be…  They’ll compose legends about us.  We are ancient fighting robots on a planet of plush disposable heiresses.  We’re only using 10 percent of the power of our computers…  We – are a division of the SS “Little Prince”!  We – are the chosen Brezhnevite Don Quixotes and hard-boiled eggs!… We are knights without goals or dreams… We are galloping on well-maintained Toyotas into Eternity.

– The Hero of VF&T

By the time Matt Raines reached out, earlier this year, to ask for my permission to stage the play in Lafayette, Louisiana, I was no longer capable of being surprised.  And when I learned about his background – Matt was a member of the first American class to graduate from the Moscow Art Theatre School – I thought, “Who better to bring this work to an American audience?”  Surely someone who spent five years navigating his way through contemporary Moscow would know how to convey its idiosyncrasies to anyone in Louisiana who might be curious.

ActUnlimit3Vices
(Three attractive distractions in Lafayette:  Television, Vodka (Nancy Ramirez), and Fucking (Candace Taylor).  Photo by Leah Graeff.)

However, what Matt recognized in the play, and others like it, was the universal quality it seemed to have in spite of its undeniable Russianness.  Here is what he told KRVS correspondent Judith Meriwether in a radio interview before the Acting Unlimited production at Theatre 810:

[Kurochkin] speaks about what is relevant in Moscow and in Russia today… These things…on a basic human level cross those boundaries, cross the bridge across the ocean.  There are many similarities… These works are fascinating, and they’re funny.  And we get a look inside the contemporary Russian mind.

Such ideas about the play’s transcendent power find support in feedback on the Acting Unlimited Facebook page:

Last night’s show of vodka f*cking and television was fantastic!  I laughed till my sides hurt but I also walked away with questions and contemplations of my own life…

If you want to experience a gripping show about the reality of humanity in its truest form and get a heavy dose of self reflection while laughing your butt off, do yourself a favor and go watch ‘V*dka*, F*ck*ng and T*lev*sion’…

Yet later in the interview, Matt acknowledged the difficulty inherent in promoting this play, reflected in all those asterisks:

After living in Acadiana for four months, I said, “You know what? This is the play to do here.”…  I think that the artists’ community, young people, middle-aged people, and even older people could enjoy this work.  If you can get past the title, you will enjoy the play.

Epilogue

So there is a sense in which Vodka, Fucking, and Television was written for Generation X, the generation that Maksym and I belong to.  But in a larger sense, the play is for every subsequent generation as well (generation x).  We live in the Postmodern era, a time marked by such rapid advances in technology and shifts in ‘modes of production’ (not to mention collapses in the global financial system) that this year’s mastery is next year’s obsolescence.  Tempted again and again by whatever pleasure-vices the manufacturers of mass culture dream up for us, we are all prone to feel distracted from our life’s work and alienated from our life’s love (i.e. the love of our life).  VF&T, as the play has come to be called, ruminates on the betwixt-and-between state of a particular set of young people in postmodern Russia.  But that state has come to be emblematic of our own, whoever we may be.


John J. Hanlon is an educator, actor, director and translator.  As an actor, his favorite roles include Raskolnikov in Crime & Punishment (Northside Theatre, San Jose, CA) as well as Ernst Ludwig in Cabaret and Richard Hannay in The 39 Steps (Off Square Theatre, Jackson, WY).  Most recently, he directed a production of Ionesco’s The Lesson for Riot Act, Inc. and Crime & Punishment for Off Square.  Working with ensembles of young actors, he conceived and directed The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire Project to commemorate the 100th anniversary of that tragic event and Last Dream I Had the Strangest Night, an homage to the Surrealists.

John has translated four plays by award-winning Russian playwright Maksym Kurochkin: Fighter Class “Medea” (Lark Play Development Center, 2004; Chicago’s Soviet Arts Experience festival, 2011); Vodka, Fucking, and Television (published in THEATERFORUM; performed at Dad’s Garage in Atlanta, 2007; CITD’s New Russian Drama festival in Baltimore, 2009; Breaking String Theater in Austin, 2012; 5pound Theatre in Melbourne, 2013; Acting Unlimited, Inc. in Lafayette, 2014); Mooncrazed (New York City’s hotINK festival, 2010); and The Right of the Captain of the R.M.S. Carpathia (Breaking String’s New Russian Drama Festival, 2012).

Additionally, John was commissioned by the Lark to translate Aleksey Scherbak’s play Colonel Pilate for hotINK 2012; scenes from this translation were published in the April 2013 edition of ASYMPTOTE.  It will receive its world premiere this fall at Ensemble Theatre of Chattanooga.  John is the founder and leader of Playwrighting Lab 47 in Jackson, Wyoming.  He has a long career directing theater programs at independent high schools and teaching senior humanities courses in a variety of subjects, including Shakespeare, Russian Literature, and Modern European Drama.  Training: M.F.A. Yale School of Drama.

  • m springer

    Fantastic for results of Hanlon’s translations of contemporary Russian drama now being available to American and English speaking audiences Perhaps cross cultural relations in the drama world can be more successful than the political.

  • Kurt Wootton

    What crosses borders is such an interesting question in terms of what audiences from different cultures and different parts of the world respond to. I very much like your synthesis of what crosses cultures: art that is immediate, irreverent, and inventive. It also seems critical that the works reach the “human heart” across cultures and/or generations as well. Thanks John for your thoughts on this.

  • John J. Hanlon

    Yes, it’s surprising to me that “irreverence” may be crucial for border-crossing work. And if I’m right about the approximate equality between that and what the Australian press called “absurd humor,” then it’s even more surprising.

    Is there some relationship between the willingness of a playwright to break planes of reality – with a wink and a smile – and the willingness of spectators in another culture to embrace the play? Something about not taking ourselves too seriously, as theater artists, or as human beings?

  • John J. Hanlon

    Thank you for your response!

    You may be right about the relative ease of cross-cultural artistic experiences compared to the complexities of international diplomacy. But I suppose it’s always been the hope of organizations like TCG, the Center for International Theater Development, and UNESCO that international understanding – and the peace that follows – may percolate from below.