While Picasso and Braque were busy in Paris deconstructing modern art, cubists in Russia, too, were laying waste to form and content. While Malevich and the Suprematists were radicalizing painting, Daniil Ivanovitch Iuvachev (later known as Daniil Kharms) and friends were knocking the stuffing out of formal literature. Kharms and his associates advocated a theater without logic or connection. KNOCK! THE DANIIL KHARMS PROJECT (caroming around the BCA through Oct. 18th) is the IMAGINARY BEASTS’ stunning take on Kharms’ surreal life and work. Don’t miss it.
The Beasts already embrace gestural language, musicality, physicality and a wild imagination to enliven their productions so Kharms would seem the perfect fit for such an adventurous company. And to think, the world might never have seen Kharms’ work: Stalin imprisoned him for his avant-garde, anti-socialist bent and later, even after he joined the Soviet Writers’ Union, he was again arrested and banned from publishing. He died in 1942 of starvation in one of the republic’s infamous, so called “mental hospitals.” Miraculously, a friend rescued his manuscripts, which didn’t surface until the 1960s. A lively, new translation by Irina Yakubovskaya found its way to the Beasts and the result is a world premiere—and to quote their press, a “once-in-a-lifetime event.” And that it is.
Michael McMahan’s adroit adaptation combines not only Kharms’ poetry, plays and short stories but actual elements of the author’s harrowing life—so that odd, little stage inventions coexist with snatches of peculiar conversations, bits of nonsense dialogue and Kharms’ revelatory black humor. Director Matthew Woods and company add their trademark wizardry for a performance of breathtaking visuals and hilarious commedia del’arte.
Kharms’ seemingly lunatic vignettes build to a menacing dread. A parade of “buffoons” follows a man pulling a sled, confiscating the pages which fall out of his suitcase. Then in another scene, they form an endless line so no one can get ahead. They may waddle in their billowing great coats and sport red clown noses but we instinctively know they’re the automatons who represent repression.
The man slowly, laboriously pulling the sled behind him (Michael Chodos) is the embodiment of Kharms himself as we imagine him, slightly bent over resigned to his fate, plodding headlong into a snow storm. Happily, the exquisite, swirling snow effect (caught in Christopher Bocchiaro’s almost blinding back light) is repeated throughout, since it’s one of the loveliest visuals in the performance.
Images speed by your visual field, sparking recognition and resonance: so many references, so many connections to what may seem at first to have none. It’s exhilarating. It’s thrilling. And it’s full of surprises. A dangerous Joey Pelletier tells us his wife has run away. (And we know why: He plucks a fly out of the air for an afternoon snack like Dracula’s assistant, Renfield.) He warns us not to “go around with peasants.” You’d certainly want to steer clear of him, although Sarah Gazdowicz manages to cleverly outmaneuver the scary watchman.
William Schuller (as the writer) is presented a desk by his exceedingly elderly aunt (Molly Kimmerling) but he doesn’t seem to know which way is up. Just when we think the Beasts have exhausted all the bizarre and delightful positions Schuller can assume and still not be able to write, they slide a chair sideways onto/under him for the frosting on the cake in one of the best sight gags ever.
Michael Underhill is no slouch in the contortions department, either. His gravity defying coup also involves a chair and an inability to employ it in the accepted mode. Every scene is a revelation (but not in the sense of complete, rational understanding). You have to let it all wash over you subjectively and give yourself over to the ride. Chris Larson’s sound design and Woods’ brilliant country “door” set, not to mention the musical choices which build the emotional impact of the scenes, all serve to reinforce the authentic “Russian” feel of the material. Cotton Talbot-Minkin’s whimsical costume designs (especially for Chodos’ snow scene and for Mariagrazia LaFauci’s ethereal “angel of death”) are simply incomparable. I could hold forth for hours about the production and the talented ensemble. Suffice it to say I’m immensely grateful to learn about Kharms and to have witnessed another inspirational offering from the Beasts. They’re like no other company around.