The Moscow musical Bed and Sofa earns a spirited revival at Ithaca’s Kitchen
When Al Jolson said, “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet,” in The Jazz Singer (1927), it meant silent movies had learned how to talk. Decades later, composer Polly Pen and lyricist Laurence Klavan have taken a silent movie from the same year, Abram Room’s Soviet curio Bed and Sofa, and taught it how to sing. Emotions that once were implied by gestures and rolls of the eye now course through solos, duets and trios in a pocket opera. This time out a thousand words beat the picture. It’s the current triumph at Ithaca’s Kitchen Theatre Company.
The deceptively simple plot of an unexpected ménage à trois during a housing shortage reveals complex and conflicting feelings that must have been ambiguous in the film. All the same, characterization and action born of a revolutionary time told with wry Slavic humor still can be unsettling.
Don’t feel left behind if you have never heard of the original film or its director. In the mid- to late-1920s, before Stalin exerted his murderous grip, Soviet cinema was the most innovative in the world, led by such stillrevered names as V.I. Pudovkin, Dziga Vertov and Sergei Eisenstein. The continuing prestige for those films in academia and at festivals brought Bed and Sofa to the attention of young hip audiences. While the film has been especially popular with feminists, don’t look for political propaganda, sexual or economic.
Steve TenEyck’s scenic design gives us a threadbare Moscow one-room apartment decorated with the kind of furniture they no longer carry at the Rescue Mission. Strategically, he moves in the walls of the apartment, so that it’s never more than a few steps from the sofa to the sink or to the bed, barely sequestered behind a shabby curtain. The cramped space, forbidding privacy, if not intimacy, feels even tighter than it does in the movie.
Nikolai, also called Kolya (baritone David Neal), is an agreeable stone mason and construction foreman married to the much younger Ludmilla (soprano Erica Steinhagen). Although Ludmilla is notably pretty despite unstylish duds, she appears smiling and obedient, uncomplaining about her daily confinement in what could pass as a large parking container. Both sing of their contentment with things as they are.
One day Kolya brings home a printer named Volodya (tenor Patrick Oliver Jones), who can’t get work unless he has a permanent address. A former army buddy, he could not be called old. Instead he is blond with an Adonis-like profile, which Ludmilla notes to herself in a song. They can make do as Volodya can sleep on the sofa, just as in the title.
A construction assignment sends Kolya to distant Rostov for three weeks, at which Volodya offers to find digs elsewhere. Generously, Kolya won’t hear of it because his wife is crazy about him, he coos, and adds that he’s so fond of her. We have noticed, as Koyla did not, that Ludmilla had been warming to Volodya for weeks, and as soon as the old man is gone, the two make their moves, hers a little more assertive than his. Now they’re on the bed, and the sofa is empty.
Theirs is not a subterfuge, however:
When Kolya returns the adulterers fess up. Chagrined, of course, the cuckold husband departs, but his humiliation is not murderous. This is not Sicily. Actually, as the old regime had been overthrown, it’s not really even Russia because under the Soviets the working class previously oppressed by the Czar and the church is now encouraged to find new ways. And so Kolya returns and sleeps on the couch. He has no other place to go. His wife’s lover is a former pal, after all, and so he plays checkers with him and wins.
While the action of the first half, much like similar events in a French bedroom farce, take place quickly, they are not really what Bed and Sofa is about. In the remainder of the opera, the three characters sing about how they feel displaced. One of the most moving trios has all three principals facing in different directions, harmonizing musically as they take different paths. Ludmilla learns that she is pregnant, and given the brevity of time that has passed, either man could be the father. Although the word “abortion” is never sung, Ludmilla is downcast when she goes to a government clinic and takes a number, pinning it to her coat, only then to rip it off.
Much as feminists applaud the ending, portraying Ludmilla as freed from her dependence on men, admittedly revolutionary for 1927, all three characters have been pried out of traditional roles and must find themselves on their own. Susannah Berryman’s subtle direction keeps an even keel.
Composer Polly Pen and lyricism Laurence Klavan realized that the scenario for the film was the basis of an excellent libretto because it is structured in such a way as to provide secure settings for musical expression. This may not be true of any other silent film, certainly not sight-gag comedies. The score is operatic in that every word is sung, there is a lot of ambitious harmonizing, and characters sing their hearts out, sometimes humorously, as when a tipsy Ludmilla wonders what Russia, personified as a woman, would be like as her sister.
The score sounds nothing like what was emerging in Russia in 1927, neither does it resemble the modernist operas seen around here recently, such as Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti and Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land. As a winner of Obie and Drama Desk awards, the music reminds one more of accessible post-Sondheimian Broadway, such as the output of Jason Robert Brown. Rhythmically, Polly Pen is more complex, with echoes of late romantic opera as well.
Golden soprano Erica Steinhagen, a company favorite, reprises the role of Ludmilla, last seen in the old theater in 2002. Musically and dramatically she has the most to do, from the dutiful wife to the minxish coquette and finally the mature, transformed adult.
Both male singers are widely experienced, and baritone David Neal is on SUNY Cortland’s performing arts faculty. Tenor Patrick Oliver Jones enjoys extensive national credits, including a stint as Carrasco in last fall’s Man of La Mancha at Auburn’s Merry-Go-Round Playhouse. Music director Richard Montgomery provides all accompaniment at the keyboard, the art that conceals art.
This production runs through Feb. 6. See Times Table for information.
Couch potatoes: David Neal, Erica Steinhagen and Patrick Oliver Jones in Kitchen Theatre’s Bed and Sofa.