"Goodbye Cruel World"
The back story to Nikolai Erdman's 1928 play "The Suicide" is a real knee-slapper: the play was banned by Stalin's censors on the eve of its premiere, the author ended up spending time in Siberia, and its would-be director, the legendary Vsevolod Meyerhold, was ultimately tortured and executed.
But Erdman, like Samuel Beckett, understood that "nothing is funnier than unhappiness," and Semyon Semyonovich Podsakelnikov, the sad sack at the heart of his absurdist gem, provides ample opportunity for mirth. Robert Ross Parker's adaptation (based on a translation by Marina Raydun) receives a sturdy, if occasionally shouty, production with Strange Tree Group under Bob Kruse's direction.
Semyon (Scott Cupper) has been unemployed for years, living off his harried wife, Maria (Jenifer Starewich), and with his crone-like mother-in-law (Elizabeth Bagby). He dreams of becoming a famous tuba player, but when that dream dies, he decides to end it all. At this point, a dizzying gallery of self-interested folks, tipped off to Semyon's incipient self-destruction by his neighbor, descend upon him. The intelligentsia, the artists, the workers, the Orthodox Church — all of them believe that Semyon's suicide note could give their own pet cause a leg up, and they lobby him accordingly.
"Your name will spread from mouth to mouth, like a cold sore," declares Joseph Stearns' Aristarch, the representative of the intelligentsia. What indeed could be funnier — and unhappier — than finding out you're worth more dead than alive?
In some ways, the premise is not dissimilar to Alexander Payne's 1996 satirical comedy "Citizen Ruth," in which Laura Dern's transient paint-huffing pregnant woman becomes a pawn in the abortion debate. But the heightened theatricality of Erdman's and Parker's vision lends itself well to Strange Tree's well-established brand of anarchic vaudeville.
The volume level (particularly from Brian Grey as Kalabushkin, the entrepreneurial neighbor) could stand to be dropped a few notches.
But by and large, the cast of six (who all, with the exception of Cupper, play multiple roles) deliver dizzyingly good performances. Cupper brings a sad-eyed, Buster Keaton-like demeanor to Semyon, and Bagby runs away with the proceedings with her chameleon-like shifts from the hunchbacked mother-in-law to a vampish actress to an owlish writer. (Everyone takes a turn with the Orthodox priest's beard and garments.) Charming musical accompaniment, courtesy of Marty and Sarah Scanlon, adds touches of Krazy Klezmer to the proceedings.
Through July 22 at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.; $25 at 773-975-8150 or theaterwit.org
"The Rorsky Plays"
Both "Daniel Day Lewis and the Big Potatas" and "Samuel Beckett, Andre the Giant and the Crickets," Rory Jobst's pair of one-acts for Oracle Productions off-nights "B-Sides" program, focus to some extent on unexpected mashups between famous people and those who are, at least temporarily, obscure.
In the former, a fan girl movie blogger (a charming Sara Greenfield) figures out that the weird guy hanging out at the pet cemetery is actually the Oscar-winning star of "My Left Foot" and "There Will Be Blood," getting all Method in preparation for a preposterous horror film, and she decides to help him out. Brian Hurst does a fairly good job aping Day Lewis' mannerisms, but the goofiness of the story for which he's preparing himself overpowers what could be a pointed evocation of the blurry boundaries between being an artist and being a celebrity.
The second piece is much more successful, though it too could use more development. Beckett, it turns out, actually did occasionally drive the young Andre Roussimoff to school in his truck because the future pro wrestler (and co-star of"The Princess Bride") was too big to ride the school bus. The unlikely duo discuss the sport of cricket and Andre's skepticism about Beckett's work. "Theater is so boring," Christopher Marcum's Andre complains. "That's foolish talk," retorts BF Helman's Sam — only to be slammed to the mat with Andre's "It's just people talking."
Marcum's performance is enchanting, and the idea of entwining the bombastic action of the wrestling ring with the existential circularities of Beckett's work is terrific and deserves expansion. Unlike Andre's school bus, Jobst's play offers plenty of room to grow.
Through July 1 at Oracle Theatre, 3809 N. Broadway; free, oracletheatre.orgCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun