Review: STRIKE: I Am The Machine Gunner AND Martial Arts by Breaking String Theater
by Brian Paul Scipione
Ambitious Desperation: A Look at Two Plays by Yury Klavdiev
“I was spread-eagled on the sand: catching my breath. My overheated machine gun was lying next to me; it was catching its breath too.” The audience might indeed envy the machine gun’s respite as it is whirled along the riveting and volatile tale of a street thug appraising his life in terms of his hopes and his heritage in Yury Klavdiev’s one man opus, I am the Machine Gunner.
The play opens simply enough with a man lost in his thoughts, hunched over himself on some unknown stoop in some unknown urban landscape. He seems to nod off and hum to himself at the same time: it is the very sight we have all seen in various downtowns the world over and the exact type of sight we would normally hustle away from.
But it's too late. This street tough rowses slowly and approaches the audience with soothing banter about the weather and how nice it is to get away from it all and in a matter of minutes the eternal monologue of the stranger’s head is the audience’s reality. And just as one’s inner meanderings can evoke thoughts of the past, present and future all at once, the character before us thrusts his entire life story onto us so fast and efficiently that our own thoughts will be gasping for breath. The storyline is not the point. The character’s name, birthday, astrological sign, or hometown are insignificant, unmentioned and unnoticed. It is the story of an emotional stalag comprised of walls of pater famillia influence, deceased cronies, missed opportunities and personas defined by senseless violence.
Veteran Austin actor Joey Hood brings the character to life with a convivial street-talking cadence spiked by sudden and outrageous gut-wrenching emotive outbursts like a garden tea party beset by raucous thunderstorms. He nods and winks at the audience with a knowing swagger and moves about the stage with the slow-paced amble of a gigolo at a cocktail party. He talks about the sunshine, cold beers, going to the theater with your friends: he could be anybody. Anybody that makes his living as an enforcer for a local crime syndicate.
His grandfather was a machine gunner in the last Great War. Posted on that grandfather’s knee he was weaned, so to speak, on all the down and dirty details, the gore and grime of the battlefield. Now he’s an adult reflecting on recent misfortunes, and he’s so deeply imbued with these stories that he cannot but help channel the man’s voice and visions. He is flying away through time and space, taking the audience with him into the abjectly horrible corners of the war. Now he’s tearing down trees with his bursts of machine gun out of boredom, now he’s swatting men like flies by the dozens from a God-like distance with his sniper’s scope, now he’s carrying a dying comrade and feeling his friend’s chemical-laced last breath as it spurts into his own face, now he’s watching men drown, burn, and continue to fight all at the same time, and now he’s lying in the grass catching his breath while his gun, also, catches its breath.
What is the purpose of his life? How does he perform as a soldier on the streets of the new Russia fighting for mafia bosses compared to the man who fought for the motherland? He has seen his friends die but only a few: what would his grandfather, the machine gunner, think of his own slice of urban warfare? As he cowers behind a car, smelling the blood of the very friends he was drinking beers with just the night before, he surveys the landscape. He sees houses, farms, trees and people and he knows deep down he’s fighting for the same reason as the machine gunner, that he too is the very same nameless, nondescript soldier but without the wherewithal, the stamina, and the courage of his ancestors past. His is the same life of desperation and confusion. Though the desire to protect the homeland has morphed into the desire to have, to consume, and to overpower his fellow citizens, the urge to fight is still there, as ambitious and alive -- as if the very same blood that flowed through the machine gunner’s veins had transformed itself as well. The violence is as pointless, the pain as cold and harsh, the inevitability as staggering but it’s different because it is now his and his alone: inherited like an old watch, to do with what he will.
* * *
The second act of Breaking String’s New Russian Drama Festival’s production of two one act plays by Yury Klavdiev’s maintained the pacing and intricate detail of the first act, but to my relief contained quite a bit more levity. Nonetheless, Martial Arts, the tale of a small boy dealing with the sudden death of his parents, is not exactly the place one would expect lightheartedness of any degree. So herein lays the playwright’s deft comprehension of viewpoint. One story is about a man caught between his country and his self, his past and his present: the other is about a child ensnared by the harsh random events of the modern world. The former may be haunted by angst and embittered emotions but the later filters all tragedy through inexperienced eyes and undeveloped fantastical constructs. Bad people are recast as dragons and demons, five rubles is a fortune, and misplaced drugs become a magical legacy. The sad moments never seem to be fully actualized by the child, for he still thinks in terms of spells, Winnie the Pooh, and looking cool in front of new friends.
The action of Martial Arts is rapid and the setting is antipathetically engrossing. The parents loll around a filthy living room regaling each other with stories of getting messed up and scenes from Oliver Stone films while their pre-teen son scrounges around the streets negotiating for bus-fare and cigarettes. The story is over almost as soon as it begins. Guns are fired and lives are changed as randomly as a summer rainstorm. The young boy is left to adjust and adapt on his own in an apartment still stained with his parent’s blood. The streetwise nature that we witnessed in the first scene has far from abandoned him as he packs up his toy cars with nary a tear.
Even so, Martial Arts contrasts the first piece in more ways than its lack of introspective tone. By pairing these works in a single evening director Graham Schmidt has rounded out a picture of contemporary Russia. The boy in the second play could by all means grow into the sensitive street thug of the first play. These terrifying foundational memories are quickly dealt with in the present by hiding behind couches and delving deeper into the child’s fantasy life, but the ramifications of these immature diversionary tactics are exactly what will seep out of the victim’s conscience years later when he asks why his life is the way it is. Yet the pairing reveals much more then aspects of a person’s psychological development: it exhibits (albeit subtly) the social evolution of life in today’s post-cold-war Russia.
The man in the first play is representing the final dissolving links to a Communist past by channeling the machine gunner, his grand-father, in an attempt to place himself both in the modern and the past world. The boy in the second play will have nothing to channel other then the images of his dead parents killed in a drug deal gone awry. Any traces of nobility, socialistic brotherhood or love for Mother Russia have been washed out in the poverty and desperation of a nascent capitalist world of gangsters, corrupt cops, drug and alcohol abuse, Western films, and acting cool in the face of adversity. The lead characters of these plays have different legacies, different individual memories and constitutionally different cosmologies, but they share a sense of self-reliance and power that stems from their culture’s relentless ambition in the face of desperation.
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