Press from Artaud: un portrait en décomposition at SummerWorks

by Justin Haigh
“Decomposition” is an apt adjective to use in conjunction with Antonin Artaud, surrealist poet and rebellious theatre maker. This artist of alienation (his most extreme works would have even left Brecht scratching his head) was eccentric and misunderstood – a status no doubt exacerbated by his bouts with mental illness and drug abuse. His personal trajectory was not always a happy one, and towards the end of his life he was largely isolated save for a very few dedicated friends.
Creators Adam Paolozza and Michelle Smith can be commended for their artful restraint. They wisely do not play biographer by attempting to explain Artaud or his inner workings via transparently expositional monologues, or put him up on a pedestal as an unsung hero, but rather use his own words to paint an evocative portrait of the complex and enigmatic man. Paolozza, who also plays Artaud, delivers the entire piece in French (accompanied by English surtitles) doing justice to the poet’s words, and to his manic energy too, at times writhing and galloping with abandon.
Artaud: un portrait en decomposition is a well crafted, organic, and thankfully three dimensional homage to an artist whose work is now more commonly found in classrooms and textbooks than on stage.
by Joslyn Kilborn

The show recieved a standing ovation, it’s clear that many in the audience felt quite moved. I too find it undeniably touching to witness my favorite (dead) writers temporarily reanimated. It’s so tangible, your favorite words embodied, corporealized!

I can’t say that in this case my emotions ever entered the experience, but now that I have been introduced to Artaud, I’d like to know him better.

Artaud has piqued my interest in Artaud.

Regardless, this show has a lot to offer intellectually and aesthetically. The mind is engaged but I think the senses are especially roused.

First of all, the show is in French, with English subtitles projected onto the black wall behind Artaud. You can easily spend most of the play trying to keep up with these poetic projections.

Or you can loosen your reliance on language-based understanding and watch Adam Paolozza’s beautiful depiction of Artaud. His performance is physical, lyrical, dance-like at times. A lot of the staging seems designed to imply movement without there actually being much movement, and I found it fascinating to watch.

Paolozza’s French is also captivating. At moments I closed my eyes and listened to him speak, understanding only the occasional word but absorbed in the melody of his voice.

The best aesthetic treat of all, though, is the shadow play. The actors are followed, Peter Pan-like, by their shadows on the wall behind them. The shadows add another performance on top of the performance, hiding and distorting elements that are clearly visible in the glare of the lights, reducing Artaud to his shifting outline.

If you think this all sounds very romanticized, you’re right. This play is amood, and a sentimental one. My sentiments left pleased, and my intellect left piqued. Romantic indeed.

Barbara’s Blog
by Barbara Goslowski
Deceptively simple in concept but mystically charged, Adam Paolozza and Michelle Smith’s production of Artaud: un portrait en décomposition stimulated both mind and spirit. It was delightfully visceral for such a seemingly dark-themed play.  Bare bones yet meaty, this was the type of theatre that got under your skin, hitting both hard and fast.

The Double

National Post

Theatre Reviews: It’s man vs. man in The Double

Robert Cushman | Feb 11, 2012

Time to order a double-double. The show called The Double is based on a Dostoevski novella of the same title, concerning one Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin. Or rather two Yakov Petrovich Golyadkins since the original owner of that name becomes convinced that he has a look­alike namesake who is usurping his job, his social position, his very life. Two highly accomplished actors play the two Golyadkins, one of them also impersonating all the other characters in the piece. There’s a third performer, a musician who plays, of all inevitable instruments, the double bass. So make that a triple-double.

Let’s start with the musician, because the show does. His name is Arif Mirabdolbaghi and as well as supplying atmospheric accompaniment in a protean range of styles, he also functions as narrator. He speaks his lines with a deadpan wit that is not uncommon among instrumentalists but is still, for somebody who apparently has never been in a play before, pretty impressive.

He is also one of the production’s reasons for being, as he’s a Dostoveski fan who transmitted his enthusiasm for the story to Adam Paolozza who directed it and also plays the primary Golyadkin. Both Paolozza and his opposite acting number Viktor Lukawski are superb mimes, but don’t let that scare you. Like their musician friend they also talk, very well and at greater length.

Yakov Petrovich, like so many heroes and anti-heroes in Tsarist Russian fiction, is a low-level government official, and thus oppressed and paranoid almost by definition. He seems to have been storing up negative feelings for years but his explicit troubles begin when he’s walking home one night and catches a glimpse of someone who seems unsettlingly familiar. He takes his troubles to a doctor who seems to fancy himself a psychiatrist ahead of his time, and who is either no help at all or too helpful by half, depending on how you look at it.

Like anyone in a rigorously stratified society, Golyadkin clings desperately to what status he has. He has a manservant, whom he patronizes or insults, and he fancies himself a social lion, though the lady on whom he has set his heart and whose party he crashes barely recognizes him. The toughest blow to his pride, though, comes when he finds his doppelgänger working in the same office and getting along far better with the boss than he himself has ever managed.

Obviously, or unless you’re an extreme believer in coincidence, the protagonist’s double is his own fevered projection of the man he would like to be. The point is wonderfully illustrated when Golyadkin I invites Golyadkin II back to his place and tries to make nice with him. The scene is played, with magnificent technical aplomb, as a ventriloquist’s routine, Paolozza speaking all the lines while Lukawski’s lips silently move and his body goes all floppy.

The adaptation is quite a free one; at least, I don’t imagine that Dostoevski wrote the stand-up comedy routine that Paolozza delivers at the height of his distraction and that is, in every sense, hysterical. There’s a cabaret atmosphere to the whole production, with audience members nearest the stage seated at tables. Lukawski switches between his multitude of roles with absolute clarity and precision; Paolozza within his one role responds in kind. All this comes to a head in a marvellous quick-change sequence that may owe something to the Marx Brothers’ great mirror scene inDuck Soup; indeed the whole show might be taken as a sustained riff on that classic routine, with the sinister undertones brought to the surface. It’s pure theatre, with none of the preciousness that term sometimes signifies and all of the exhilaration.

The Double is clever and engaging


The Globe and Mail, February 14, 2012

There is a deliciously inventive piece of mime that marks the climax of The Double, a stage adaptation (with music) of the Fyodor Dostoyevsky novella. Haunted by a doppelganger who must seem to the audience more psychological disturbance than actual person, the anxious little government clerk Golyadkin has finally invited the mysterious man into his apartment for conversation and vodka. Here, Adam Paolozza plays Golyadkin and Viktor Lukawski plays the double, presenting his questionable being with a limp, puppet-like body that his colleague manipulates the way you would a ventriloquist’s dummy. The double, moved about the room like a giant doll, only speaks when Paolozza squeezes his cheeks to force his mouth open and then says his words for him. It is a fabulous physical representation of the way in which the assertive, self-confident double is but a creation of Golyadkin’s self-doubting mind.

Of course, the creators know it’s clever and funny and the scene is prolonged more than necessary: The Double, which is both narrated and accompanied on the double bass by rock musician Arif Mirabdolbaghi while Paolozza and Lukawski do the physical performing, is one of those charming companions who do tend to go on. The novella has more plot and characters than fit comfortably in a three-person stage show, and Golyadkin’s relationship with a young woman – she is represented by the body of a violin – and her wealthy father are less interesting than his scenes with the double.

Paolozza and Mirabdolbaghi have said they were inspired to create the show partly by their own physical resemblance – both have black beards – but Mirabdolbaghi’s face, staring at Paolozza’s as if from a mirror, is only one of their several tricks for representing the double. Paolozza often plays the other himself, switching deftly from the touchy clerk with his petty pretensions to his garrulous, glad-handing doppelganger. On both sides of the coin, it is a lithe and engaging performance. Lukawski is equally flexible, distinguishing one secondary character from another with an impressive variety of physical comedy and mime.

At his double bass, Mirabdolbaghi provides both the musical drive for Golyadkin’s frenetic neurosis and occasional contemporary references. All are brought together in a fanciful climax of do-wop and vaudeville in which the poor clerk is issued off to the sanatorium by his German doctor. If Dostoyevsky foreshadowed Freud, this post-Freudian gang can mock him with élan.

From Lyn Slotkin,

The Passionate Playgoer

February 8, 2012

Mr. Golyadkin is a meek, insecure government clerk, with a dash of paranoia. He is an outsider trying to fit in, while having contempt for the phonies he hopes will accept him. One day another man with the same name comes to work in the office. He is the spitting image of our meek Mr. Golyadkin—his double you might say. But as meek as our Mr. Golyadkin is, that’s as lively and flamboyant is the other Mr. Golyadkin, and cunning and mischievous. The other Mr. Golyadkin sets traps for the meek Mr. G, fooling the office workers into think one was the other and vice versa. This sets the meek Mr. Golyadkin’s paranoia into outer space. He loses sight of reality. Is the other Mr. Golyadkin real? Is he really the meek one’s double or a figment of his imagination? The questions make our meek Mr. Golyadkin crazy.

The gifted creators of this adaptation: Adam Paolozza, Arif Mirabdolbaghi and Victor Lukawski, along with their design team, create a world of shadows, darkness, frenzy, mystery, insecurity and a touch of madness. They use clowning and music to plumb the darkest depths of the story, and to bring out the humour as well. As Mr. Golyadkin, Adam Paolozza is a fastidious creator, dedicated to detail. He flits from one version of Golyadkin to the other with a flick of a light change. His body language is fluid. His voice is rich and mellifluous. As a director his sense of image and vision is startling and so effective.

Arif Mriabdolbaghi supplies all the sound effects and creates the music with his double bass. He is also the narrator of the story, filling in commentary. He reminded me so much of master clown, Dean Gilmour (except for the hair or lack thereof); a wide-eyed look of innocence and wonder with a hint of the imp; and his voice is as tempered and musical as Gilmour’s. As various other characters in the story, Victor Lukawski gives each distinctiveness and their own sense of humour.

I do have a quibble with THE DOUBLE. As rich as it is in detail and story lines, they go on too long. Not everything needs to be kept in out of respect for Dostoyevsky. Some cutting would have been helpful without diminishing the story. After a while it looked like they were trying to outdo their cleverness rather than tell the story. That makes everything tedious. Less please.

Overall though, THE DOUBLE an artful, funny time in the theatre.


By ,

The Double is a powerhouse performance by two actors and the bassist of Protest The Hero at Toronto’s Factory Theatre

Combining the extraordinary talents of two actors and one musician,The Double is a unique tale of one man’s struggle with his own personal identity and neurosis. Produced by the Dora Award-winning company TheatreRun, and based on an original adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novella, this highly impressive display of physical theatre is worth seeing even a second time.

Set in the intimate setting of Factory Theatre’s studio, the story opens with the charming narrator holding his upright bass, a unique instrument in itself. Played by Arif Mirabdolbaghi, an already young and well-established musician from Protest The Hero, the bass also acts as a female character, known to the audience as Clara.

As the story unfolds, we meet Mr. Golyadkin, played by the multi-talented Adam Paolozza, also the director and creator of the show. The opening scene in which Mr. Golyadkin creates the illusion of walking forward on stage, with effective lighting above, was just a taste of what the audience was going to be in for.

Adam Paolozza, clearly accomplished in the art of miming, was absolutely phenomenal in the role of Mr. Golyadkin. We feel his torment from the beginning right up until his downward spiral. At times heroic, at other times spineless, Paolozza creates for us in Mr. Golyadkin a very human character.

Co-performer Viktor Lukawski was just as brilliant. With his impeccable timing and delivery, Lukawski appears scene after scene transformed into various characters, each uniquely fashioned. His role as “doctor” had some of the most memorable moments. He and Paolozza had tremendous chemistry and the mastery of their crafts made for an engaging show from beginning to end.

The lighting design was highly effective, enhancing the various illusions on stage and adding to the jazzy and vaudeville-type atmosphere.

The set was simple, but who needs a set when you have masterful mime artists creating it all for you? This show was about the characters and its story, the interesting interplay between the music, and the remarkable acting performances.

This cast of three delivers a multi-disciplinary powerhouse performance. Deemed a dark, comedic satire, this world premiere ofThe Double, presented by TheatreRun, is one of the best pieces of theatre I’ve seen in while and definitely worth venturing out to see.


by Christopher Hoile

“Double Your Pleasure, Double Your Fun”

If you want to experience the joy of pure theatre, then hurry down to the Factory Studio Theatre to see The Double.  Based on the famous 1846 novella of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, this imaginative and darkly funny blend of verbal and physical theatre tells the tale of a humble clerk who loses his already tenuous grip on sanity.

Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin (Adam Paolozza), whose family name means “poor fellow” in Russian, already has a double nature when we first meet him.  Though meek with his superiors he is imperious to his inferiors like his grudging manservant Petrushka (Viktor Lukawski).  Though earning a middling income, he likes to play the great man.  He hires a carriage to take him around St. Petersburg, but is afraid should anyone from work see him in it.  He goes about putting holds on expensive items claiming his manservant will be around the next day to pay for them and pick them up.  He deludes himself that he is invited to an exclusive birthday celebration for Klara Olsufyevna (Lukawski with a violin), a young woman he fancies is in love with him, even when he has to sneak the back way to gain entrance before being ejected. by the footman

When he goes to see his doctor (Lukawski again), he tells him he is surrounded by enemies who are trying to ruin him and breaks down in tears.  Golyadkin’s paranoia soon manifests itself in the form of his double–a man who looks just like him and even has the same name but is as outgoing and cheerful as Golyadkin is withdrawn and morose.  How Golyadkin deals with the threat of an alter-ego more successful than he forms the gist of the play.

Dostoyevsky’s story may form the plot, but it is TheatreRUN’s remarkable presentation that brings it to life.  The Factory Studio Theatre has been arranged so that the first few rows of seats have been replaced by tables and chairs and the front edge of the stage sports a series of footlights–all helping to create the atmosphere of a cabaret at the end of the 19th century.  Musician Arif Mirabdolbaghi, bass-player and lyricist of the award-winning Canadian Metal band Protest The Hero, enters in period costume and plays a solemn Russian lament on his instrument that he gradually alters into a jazzy upbeat tune.  This overture sets up the structure for the whole evening since while TheatreRUN does tell us Dostoyevsky’s tale of madness it also uses it for wild theatrical riffs of its own.

Mirabdolbaghi serves as the wry narrator of the tale and through his playing becomes a witty musical commentator on the action.  Both Paolozza and Lukawski are amazing adept at mime.  Paolozza plays Golyadkin and sometimes his Double while Lukawski plays about a dozen other characters, sometimes also the Double, who pop up in Golyadkin’s life and distinguishes them all with absolute clarity.  One especially inventive sequence finds Paolozza as Golyadkin 1 inviting Lukawski as the Double to his house.  In one of many riffs on theme, Lukawski goes completely limp and Paolozza manipulates him and speaks for him as if he were a ventriloquist’s dummy.  Another hilarious scene has Paolozza as both Golyadkin and the Double struggle with each other on either side of a foot-wide screen.  Paolozza’s instantaneous switches from one to the other is simply amazing.

While the show retains an air of spontaneity, it is clearly precisely timed and directed.  Paolozza’s and Lukawski’s interactions with the various types of shadows that André Du Toit’s inventive lighting creates is a constant pleasure throughout the show, some lighting tricks leading to gasps of surprise.  Some may find the show’s occasional anachronisms, such as Golyadkin’s 1940s-style radio dream sequence a problem, but as Mirabdolbaghi’s narration reminds us, this is theatrical event occurring here and now rather than a naturalistic period production.

With the success of Spent last year and now with this stylish and madcap production of The Double, TheatreRUN has established itself as company whose productions you miss at peril to your artistic wellbeing.


At the Undercurrents festival in Ottawa 2011

“Spent made the whole festival worthwhile. This creation, which is in many ways a collective effort, brings together a team of theatre people whose work is a rare phenomenon in English speaking Canada where a theatre of text is the normal fare. Spent on the other hand has realized a break through in this verbal tradition by creating a performance based on the heightened presence of the body, as well as the creation of visual illusions and extremely intelligent textual fragments taken from contemporary writings of the church, from lacanian psychoanalysis and from journalistic analysis of current political events. It also integrates a multitude of linguistic forms, sounds, specific gestures and facial expressions that correspond to the many people who inhabit this country. And it all appears as the result of a heightened sense of theatricality which transforms the most banal occurrence into a highly stylized and exciting event that whets ones appetite for more.

Working closely with a very tighly orchestrated sound scape, both performers move in the most perfect harmony, as their choreography , their gestures, their facial expressions and their speaking styles, set off a theatrical dance that makes time whizz by at an unbelievable rate. I barely saw the hour go by.

Spent in fact creates a magnificent Urban Canadian myth. It tells the story of the Financial crash that hit the world several years ago, how it was reported in the Media and how the near suicide of two traders, produced the ‘Miracle on Bay Street’, a particular Toronto phenomenon that inspired a whole series of events, around the attempted suicide of our two Holy heroes. The sequences produce a breathtaking series of isolated episodes that create the illusion of teetering on the brink of suicide, of falling from the heights of the Bay street Towers. The two men are somehow swept away on a magical ride into the clouds, where they live a heavenly voyage and a hellish nightmare before returning to earth to resolve the financial crisis in Canada.

Using the techniques of silent film, (Laurel and Hardy, Chaplin and many others) where humour, slapstick and pathos come together in the most imaginative way, the two performers then draw on the most amazing rhythm –induced forms of mime, the physical poetry of Marceau Marceau, even Meyerhold’s image of the bio mechanical actor comes to life within this repertoire of all the forms of physical theatre that exist in the Western tradition, along with images inspired by the Lanterna Magica, and from other visual and corporeal based sources this collective of artists has seamlessly integrated them all in their own corporeal poetry.

Note for example the discussion where the two actors recreate a hot debate among a Lacanian psychoanalyst, a Hindu professor, an Anglican minister and an Italian Catholic priest, all talking at once and all reproducing the sounds and the gestures of each of these ‘types who see the world according to their own beliefs and their own cultural heritage. Leaping from such depths of discussion to sizzling broadcasts on BBC television and the final moment when the two holy survivors of the suicide attempt curl up together in their getaway train with their ties flapping in the wind as they eat hot soup out of a can. Such sequences are worthy of the most brilliant moments of classic silent film and will certainly have an impact on the future evolution of theatre in English Canada. I kid you not. What this company has achieved is very important.

Why Not theatre, TheatreRun and Theatre Smith –Gilmour must return to Ottawa sometime soon. They were a breath of fresh air in the theatrical landscape of this city and everyone should have a chance to see them. The problem is that after Spent, everything else might just seem a little bit boring…

If you can only see ONE show at the Undercurrents Festival, Spent must be your choice.”

– Alvina Ruprecht, Capital Critics Circle Ottawa February 3, 2011

Ottawa, February 3, 2011.

” * * * (3/4 stars)

With people losing homes, savings and livelihoods, it’s hard to imagine that there’s a heck of a lot of mirth to be squeezed out of the latest, worldwide financial upheaval.

But clowning knows few boundaries, which explains why younger talents Adam Paolozza and Ravi Jain have joined forces with directors Michele Smith and Dean Gilmour (of Theatre Smith-Gilmour) to try to track down any humour that may be found amid all the darkness.

The result is Spent, 60 minutes of clowning, satire and absurdism, which opened last night at Factory Studio Theatre.

Contained within the framework of a BBC World News report, a lot of Spent is splendidly satirical as Paolozza and Ravi target the greed that underlies the current crisis.

For example, there’s a lovely section in which a twitching Richard Fuld, former head of Lehman Brothers, is grilled about his multi-million-dollar stock options, in stark contrast to his shareholders who have lost everything.

But then the show decides to focus on two Toronto traders, poised to jump off a Bay St. building. Much to everyone’s surprise (including their own), they survive and it is immediately dubbed “the miracle on Bay St.” But on their way down, the traders undergo a series of nightmarish, fantastical adventures, including a memorable visit to hell complete with some gruesome tortures and a delightful guest appearance by the Devil himself.

Also lots of fun is Rapid Fire, a talking heads program on which various pundits give their opinions about the survival of the Bay St. duo. Paolozza and Jain seize the opportunity to switch between the four guests and two hosts with breathtaking speed and precision.

Not all of the evening is this sharply honed, however, and the piece runs out of steam before the end. But along the way, they have made us laugh – and made us think.

” This is a great show : inventive, physical, funny, virtuoso and somewhat sly. It’s unabashed physical theatre. Ravi and Adam are the real thing. “

– Robert Crew, Toronto Star October 2009

“Spent is first class theatre
from powerhouse creators.”
– Paula Citron, Classical 96.3fm

“A wonderful combination of incisive satire
and sharp physical comedy…” NNNN!
– Jon Kaplan, NOW Magazine

“…magnificently crafted…ingeniously well performed…October’s hottest commodity.”

– Denise Hinds,

“Inventive, physical, funny, virtuosic and sly”

Leah Cherniak, former AD of Theatre Colombus

” I was delighted by SPENT. A great way to spend 40 minutes in a black box and come out feeling richer, not spent. Witty, subversive, cocasse. “

– Matthew Jocelyn, Artistic Director for The Canadian Stage Company

” You do not want to miss this show. “

– Franco Boni, Artistic Director for the Theatre Centre

Artaud : un portrait en décomposition

“Intimate…beautiful…the kind of work we want to see more of in Toronto.”

– Sophie Perceval, TFO – Radio Canada

“Beautiful…moving, human…”

– Marjorie Murhpy, Radio Canada

“Stylish and cinematic”

– Patricia Marceau, actor/director

The Raven

“The Raven is story telling at its finest. Why Not Theatre and TheatreRUN have interpreted Edgar Allen Poe’s classic tale with masterful elegance. Their style is inventive, physical and compellingly fun – and not for one second do they lose that specific edge of Gothic horror. Keep watching out for these exceptional theatre artists!”
– Martha Ross, former co-artistic director and founder of Theatre Colombus


” * * * * “ – The Scotsman, Edinburgh

” * * * * ” – The Metro, Edinburgh

” Perfect theatrical pixie dust for a rainy afternoon. ” – The Scotsman, Edinburgh

” Charms with a blithe, cartoonish spirit. ” Charleston Post and Courrier, Charleston SC

” TheatreRUN breathes new life into an old form… ” –, New York


The Stranger – Seattle November 18, 2004 issue
Artsy, but Not Alienating
by Brendan Kiley

Damn those cute bastards of TheatreRUN all to hell. Damn them up and down, left and right: damn those Swiss/Canadian/English/American artists for having all the fun. This one-and- a-half-year-old traveling company has come to ConWorks with Russian Doll. It’s a fun bit of physical theater–imaginative and artsy, but not alienatingly so. They met at the très international Lecoq School in Paris, where they studied clownery, mimicry, and the bare bones of comedy and tragedy–what makes a scene funny or touching whether you’re from Rwanda or Japan.

And that’s the problem–these good-looking youngsters do their magical thing from Paris to New York, casting eccentric flowers on the rain-stained sidewalks. They spell theater with an “-re.” I imagine they sweat rosewater during rehearsals and retire to a tastefully bohemian apartment, where they get blissfully stoned and host sweet, sweet commedias dell’orgy. (Put that one in your press release, kids!)

How nice, in these dark days of conservative conquest, to be an itinerant artist and not a mere terrestrial being, hunching over a keyboard in dorky socks, pawing through the notes I take when interviewing my betters. Because they needed the PR, they agreed to pretend, for 45 minutes, that I was a person worth talking to.

We began with a rousing round of Celebrity Rorschach, a game I invented on the spot, in which the company would hear me say five words and then blurt out the first word that came to their minds:

“Boot,” I said. “Camp,” one replied.

“Leaf.” “Rolling.”

“Rubber.” “Glove.”

“Bulb.” “-ous.”

“Frankie.” “Johnny.”

My one novel idea exhausted, I asked them about Russian Doll. It’s a series of stories, told with minimal props and maximal beauty, “but not abstract or dancey.” Each of the three tales happens in a successively bigger space on the stage. The first features a young, vaguely Russian woman who immigrates to America and sets up a doll factory. The ensemble elaborates the three-act tale in a 172-inch by 10-foot rectangle, with nothing more than their bodies, some rope, and shiny tools. The next story concerns office workers trapped in a dull cycle of the mundane. The boss somehow falls out of the loop and begins pulling coworkers from their comfortable repetition. The third story is about a guy running through his own memory, and occupies the biggest area of the stage–the inner life, performed in the biggest space. See? These guys get it.

TheatreRUN’s first show (Horror Vacui) had its premiere in a Paris geriatric ward, and the audience wandered around, shouted, and pissed themselves during the show. An ancient lady in the crowd declared: “If I don’t die soon, I’d like to see what that company does next.”

This is your chance to see what that morbid old Frenchwoman is missing.

Nightstand – The Stranger – Seattle From the Dec 2 – Dec 8, 2004 issue
Fools, Russian
by Christopher Frizzelle

The world premiere of TheatreRUN’s Russian Doll ended its run at Consolidated Works to a half-full house two Sundays ago. A half-full house on the closing night of a show as good as Russian Doll is sad, but it’s not as sad as, say, having to cancel a performance because literally no one showed up (which also happened during the run), or getting panned in another weekly newspaper by a reviewer who admitted to not understanding the show (“I’m at a loss”) and then held up his own failure to understand it as the only real evidence that the show didn’t work. (The Seattle Times, on the other hand, raved about it, and Brendan Kiley wrote a brief column in this paper profiling the charismatic ensemble: two actors, four actresses.) When word finally began to get out that Russian Doll was actually sturdy, modern, comic, smarter than its own premise, and worthy of people’s attention–surely it was better than Take Me Out, that cheesy play at Seattle Rep about the gay baseball player, which most reviewers bent over forwards to describe as daring, full of meaning, etc. –by that point, Russian Doll had closed. One member of the cast was packing her bags for London, another for Switzerland. (The play was created collaboratively at ConWorks, but the players live all over the world.) And Russian Doll is the kind of show that can’t go on without its actors, and these actors in particular: Their intuition, timing, chemistry, and control is not the kind of thing that’s easily replicated.

My contribution to the Russian Doll word-of-mouth mill consisted of calling two-dozen people the afternoon before closing night, many of whom were writers. (More than anything else, the show, which again and again pulled in unforeseen directions, exemplified narrative possibility, which I realize isn’t a thrilling plane of thought for everyone, but the first of the three performances I saw made me want to go home and turn out a novel.) One problem Russian Doll’s creators are going to have as they take the show elsewhere is describing Russian Doll in a way that makes it sound remotely entertaining. The description of the show that ran in The Stranger’s calendar–“spectacular physical theater”–sucks. The show was spectacular, and its physicality was endlessly compelling, but it wasn’t a show about pantomime. It was about people. Pantomime is a tradesman’s trick; it’s imitative and dull. What the few who saw Russian Doll saw was life–sharply presented, but messy, seemingly uncalibrated, surprising. The Russian doll of the title, made entirely of metal, got no here-is-a-symbol treatment. Nor did the theme of time, although time’s at the center of it all: its thrilling forward rush, its awful imperviousness, its neutrality, its speed, its dispensations, its unfathomable capacity. There were physical innovations in Take Me Out, too, but who cared? The innovations in Russian Doll, which also involved physical elements, were riskier. Russian Doll was modern in the literary sense. It was about being trapped in the act of being.

Seattle Times
“Russian Doll” is weirdly lovely experimental theater

By Leah B. Green

The title of TheatreRUN’s world-premiere physical theater work, “Russian Doll,” initially evokes kitsch — those doll-within-a-doll-within-a-doll contraptions that allow one to fit a whole family of old-country Russians into a single shelf space.

Thankfully, the entirety of the weirdly lovely “Russian Doll,” created for Consolidated Works’ “Instinct” series, includes none of those gimmicky tourist artifacts. “Russian Doll” may, however, owe them a spiritual debt — as they approach their art with a similar attention to the clever use of space, layered undertones and a repetition of old themes.

The collaboration of six performers (an international crew that includes one former Seattleite — James Garver) with San Francisco playwright Andy Miara, “Doll” relies on the bedrock values of physical theater work: ensemble casting, triple-duty props, minimalist imagery, compelling narrative, a healthy sense of play and a “why not?” attitude. The first image on stage is that of a stark white box laid on the floor. At first, it seems the cast intends to act the entirety of the play inside this cramped box — and one wonders how they ever made it through rehearsals.

In this story, Natasha, escaping an unwanted marriage, runs off with her blacksmith lover. Losing him during their escape, Natasha finds solace — and profit — in the manufacture of iron-cast dolls that carry subtle emotional connotations in their uncuddly faces.

When the box breaks open — as a means to denote a major shift in scenery — the results are a pair of David Lynch-ish vignettes of absolutely no consequence to the original story.

The first (and better) of these is an office scene in which the drone inhabitants get swept out of their routine by a mysterious force, revealing frightening truths about their tenuous existence.

The second follows the bitter demise of a relationship — a gimmicky bit in which the woman is played in tag-team by every woman in the cast. Both of these departures jar us out of the primary story just long enough to disorient. They make us question things like the fluidity of identity and our lack of real control in the world.

“Russian Doll” may be the perfect introduction to experimental theater for the uninitiated or those scarred by former encounters with nonsensical performance art.

It is challenging, but not impossible to grasp. And thanks to a tightly wound and thoughtful performance by the expert ensemble, it is blissfully entertaining as well.

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