Daniil Kharms (a name to flummox your spellcheck) passes the kid test. His A Thought About Raya is possibly the most Dada-esque production you would ever see, enough to send Eugene Ionesco scampering to Hallmark Presents. Yet
among those seated at a press preview at the Redhouse, 201 S. West St.,
were two small children, possibly first-graders, brought by their
intrepid (or reckless) parents. Not only were the youngsters a credit
to their upbringing, but they were obviously having a good time.
Dada ha-has: Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen in A Thought About Raya.
Adults, while smiling and friendly, appeared more tentative. Raya runs
about 70 minutes without intermission. Before anyone could get out of
his seat, Redhouse staff members rushed forward with trays of small
plastic cups containing a shot of vodka (courtesy of Beak & Skiff)
and a pickle. Very Russian. This was a warm-up for the talkback
session, joined by the cast of two without changing costumes and the
director. Not one question was asked, possibly out of fear of being
thought a theatrical dullard. The children had a better idea. In a live
presentation two of the most reliable sources of delight are the Punch
& Judy show and the jack-in-a-box.
A Thought About Raya comes to us
from the Debate Society, a Brooklyn-based company consisting of two
actor-writers, shortish brunette Hannah Bos and tall, gangling bearded
redhead Paul Thureen, and director Oliver Butler. When a Debate Society
show comes to town, you get the same package you would have in
Brooklyn: sets, costumes, gasps and shouts. A year ago the troupe
brought us The Eaten Heart, an absurdist deconstruction of Bocaccio’s Decameron. Redhouse
artistic director Laura Austin liked them so well she immediately
wanted them to come back, as a celebration of the new. Only Raya is not exactly new—it premiered in 2004—and playwright Kharms (1905-1942) has been dead a long time.
Raya’s local arrival may have
additional resonance in that acclaimed Syracuse University author
George Saunders championed Kharms in a New York Times article
two years ago, seeing him as a precursor to Samuel Beckett. Kharms (an
assumed name, possibly a blend of the English words “charm” and “harm”)
flourished in the short-lived Russian futurist period, after the
Revolution and before Stalin. That’s the interval that gave us the
first dystopian science fiction, Yevgeny Zamiatin’s We (ripped off by George Orwell in 1984),
and motion picture editing as an art form. Kharms has much in common
with both, violent juxtapositions and unease with the way things are
The Soviets eventually declared Kharms
nuts, and he died in an asylum, his main work smuggled out and
rediscovered only recently. In his lifetime Kharms got by with popular
children’s writing (surprise! surprise!), even though he privately
admitted not relishing the company of children (also true of Dr.
Seuss). His children’s writing is also marked by a seemingly cruel
disdain for old people. This theme shows up in A Thought About Raya with the nonsense repeating of a line about old ladies falling out of windows and breaking into pieces.
At the beginning of the action Bos and
Thureen are seen behind transparent sheets of plastic, with pages of
typing paper scattered everywhere. The same premise is the subject of
thousands of cartoons. A would-be artist sets out to write the great
(Russian?) novel but can’t stick with it. Eventually we deduce that Bos
and Thureen are not simply “the woman” and “the man” but rather a
series of characters with different identities. Thus the line about the
horror of falling and crashing old ladies takes on new meaning when
Raya’s humor is often physical
rather merely verbal. Bos and Thureen, with the agility of athletes in
a gym, are constantly in motion, sometimes taking steps in a kind of
jagged dance. Bos is the greater trickster, once swallowing a complete
stick of butter without gagging—and then pulling it out again. Or maybe
it isn’t butter and instead some more pliable yellow stuff shaped to
look like Land O’Lakes. This is a show where you can’t trust your eyes.
In the end, the kids have the right
idea. Banish all ideas of character development, conflict and rising
action. Just sit back and try to predict the action. See if you know
when Jack—or Raya—will pop out of the box.
This production runs through Saturday, Oct. 24. See Times Table for information.