Review: The Suicide by Paper Chairs
by David Glen Robinson

Paper Chairs is an innovative company known for its boldness and vision. The company is opening the little-known but important play The Suicide by Russian playwright Nicolai Erdman, at the Off Center in east Austin. In so doing, they are solidifying their reputation for making brilliant choices.

Their production comes at a time of vastly heightened interest and concern for Russian theatre of all periods, in part from the world-changing events in Ukraine and Russia. Paper Chairs is offering a two-for-one ticket arrangement for any ticket buyer who brings to their box office a program from Breaking String Theatre’s concurrent production of Dulcey and Roxy at City HallD&R is the newest Russian play on the planet, written by Maksym Kurochkin specifically for Austin, addressing at once comedically and tragically the ongoing events in Ukraine.

But The Suicide of Paper Chairs is from 1929 by Nicolai Erdman. His life is one of those oft-told stories of Russian artists singled out for oppression by Josef Stalin. Yet within Erdman’s story is a lot of irony. As a young man, he joined the Red Army in the Russian Civil War and fought for Lenin. In spite of that, Stalin sent him to the gulag in the 1930s in disagreement with Erdman’s movie scripts. Anyone so tainted was an undesirable and forbidden from joining the Russian Army. Yet in World War II Erdman found a way to enlist and fight against Hitler, albeit in noncombat roles. Clearly, here was a courageous, committed socialist, who put his actions ahead of his words. His story heightens interest in his absurdist plays and parodies, and raises the question of what about them so offended the Soviet authorities.

The Suicide is an excellent example of Erdman’s work, in which one may seek clues to answer this question. It's considered Erdman’s finest play. Yet even with the backing and support of Stanislavsky and Gorky, the state canceled the play’s production on the eve of its premiere. Not until 1992 did The Suicide received a full-stage production in Russia, more than twenty years after Erdman’s death.

Our protagonist is citizen Semyon Semyonovitch Podsekalnikov (Michael Joplin). He lives in Moscow with his wife Maria (Kelli Bland) and mother-in-law Serafima Ilinichna (Lana Dietrich). At first he is identified falsely as a potential suicide, then others try to talk him into it for their own self-interested purposes, and later he seeks death as a refuge from all the badgering, a “Suicide’s Progress” as it were. Most other characters are allegorical representations of then-modern Stalinist Russian society, socialist only in name. They stand for the intelligentsia, artists, working class proletarians, the petit bourgeois, the church, sex workers, and the masses of the unemployed. All segments fall to the scythe of Erdman’s parody and direct critiques.  The authorities of the government are the first in line, deservedly so, considering their epic lack of humor.

This dry, droll, absurdist comedy owes much to Meyerhold, a contemporary of Erdman’s, who fared even worse than Erdman (he was executed by firing squad in 1940). High-stepping tip-toe walks, bent-over creeping shuffles in silence, and a dance around a table all seem to come straight out of surviving images of Meyerhold’s experimental performance and comedy techniques.

What emerges is this: Erdman’s critiques of the government cannot be contained by allegory, parody, and metaphor. They break out in direct scathing attacks. Semyon, fed up, demands that a telephone be brought to him “I’m calling the Kremlin,” he screams, “That’s right, the Kremlin!” Then, in a fight with a phone tree that bonds him instantly with everyone in the 21stcentury, he shouts slowly every syllable of his name, declaiming that he is a person, not a cog. After a while, his ranting stops. “He hung up on me,” Semyon whispers in disbelief. There is no doubt who the “he” is. This kind of writing could in no way endear Erdman to Stalin.

Decades later, European and American intellectuals came to see Stalin as nothing but an old fashioned dictator, anything but the protector of a communist revolution. But they were hopelessly late. Everyday socialist Russians like Erdman, living under the yoke at the time, called it on Stalin.Just as today Maxsym Kurochkin, Pussy Riot, and thousands of Russian artists call it on Vlad Putin.

Paper Chairs' production seems faithful to the text in translation and in its movement, direction, and values. The production offers an immensely advanced 21st century set design by Lisa Laratta and lighting design by the team of Natalie George and Jennifer Rogers. The set extends along an extended horizontal line, stage left to stage right in the Off Center; but it appears very shallow upstage to downstage. It has translucent walls and ceiling panels. Light playing on and through the surfaces is well integrated with the set and progress of the story. The two design fields work together so well that the properties and characters seem to shimmer in space.

Laura Freeman merges acting and music in the play, performing instruments and singing her own compositions and other songs in her scenes. Nathan Brockett and Rachel Dendy accompany her or perform solo on violin and banjo, respectively. The cast as a whole performs with excellent comedic timing in multiple roles. In addition to those already mentioned, the cast includes Florinda Bryant, Frank Benge, Tony Salinas, Steven Fay, Cassie Stewart, Jay Byrd, and Jason Bryant. Elizabeth Doss and Lisa Laratta provide crisp and fast-paced direction. Production designer Spring Karlo mastered the complexities of a large cast, multitudes of properties, and the meshing of the design fields.

The concentration of brilliance we see in Russian literature and the arts seems to have first flowered at the time of Catherine the Great and her associations with the Enlightenment philosophes, particularly with Voltaire. From there it extended through Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and forward to the twentieth century theatre artists who continue to fascinate us. Paper Chairs has performed a creative act of time-binding in bringing forward this historical play at a most appropriate moment in history. They deserve the thank-you of ticket-buying for their service in heightening the quality of Austin theatre.

You, too, can participate in the great vibrancy that is Russian literature and art. Hurry to Dulcey and Roxy at City Hall at the Salvage Vanguard Theatre before it closes today, watch the show, then take your program from there to The Suicide at the Off Center to receive two-for-one tickets. Enjoy theatre and become globally relevant while informing your opinions (and don’t forget that Paper Chairs serves popcorn). After that, find ways to support the artists struggling to find freedom in their homeland.

The Suicide
by Nikolai Erdman
Paper Chairs

May 15 - May 31, 2014
Off Center
2211-A Hidalgo Street
near Robert Martinez and E. 7th Street, behind Joe's Bakery
Austin, TX, 78702

Thursday, Friday, & Saturday:  May 15th - May 31st 
All Shows start at 8pm. Doors open at 7:40pm. 
There will be NO late seating.
The production runs approximately 2 hours & 15 minutes. 
There will be a 15 minute intermission.

Our online ticket sales go offline at 5pm, but we will have some walk-up tickets available.
General Admission: sliding scale $15-$25  
"Semyon Special" - $30 for premium seating and special treats during the show!
For tickets and more info, please visit: 
Or call 512-686-6621

Looking for a a friendly discount?
We're offering $10 tickets on Thursdays with the online code "Tuba"