If you missed their award winning KNOCK! The Daniil Kharms Project, you missed IMAGINARY BEASTS’ visually stunning foray into the world of the Russian “suprematists.” The revolutionary art movement originated by the painter Malevich championed a visceral form of art far outside realism. (When you see Malevich’s paintings, you think at first that they’re Picasso or Braque’s cubist work: Same inspiration, different countries!) Now imagine theater which has been “deconstructed” by Kharms and his fellow writers, down to its basic elements, without logic or plot. Stalin did not approve. Kharms did not survive. But his work did.
Last season’s KNOCK! introduced Kharms himself (as the BEASTS imagine him) as a character in his own writings, a surprisingly rich concept because the audience gets to experience his loss, as the writer pulls a sled behind him in a blinding snowstorm. We watched in horror as pages from the manuscript blew off the sled, lost forever, as he trudged along unawares.
The BEASTS continue their examination of Kharms’ work with an adaptation of his Elizaveta Bam, translated by Zova Derman. BETTY BAM! plays through May 2nd with five actresses portraying Betty and three directors contributing scenes in different styles. We’re introduced to a terrified Betty, moving along a wall as far from her front door as she can retreat because the police are trying to gain access. The scene plays like a silent film, her arms outstretched as she backs away from a window, her mouth fixed in exaggerated horror.
In the course of the play—or rather, the experiment (Don’t expect a play)—we see Betty’s predicament over and over, slightly altered each time—or rather interrupted—by canned laughter or rhythmic clapping or a vaudeville bit—and multiplied with more BETTYs. The BEASTS are pushing us out of our comfort zone—confusing us, diverting our attention with an intruder (which worked on my theater companions like gangbusters!)—then delighting us with oversized mice and shadow puppets and lots of eggs. There are chanting BETTYs (reminiscent of Shakespeare’s witches) and a walking coat: images galore that we’re struggling to put together. And that’s the point of deconstructing. You can’t reassemble it.
The BEASTS’ ensemble players work together seamlessly. You can say the same of the team. Lighting (Christopher Bocchiaro), costumes (Cotton Talbot-Minkin), set (Matthew Woods and Candido Soares), sound (Chris Larson) are all of a piece, intermingling with ideas from directors’ Woods, Joey C. Peletier and Michael Underhill.
Then BEAST performers/collaborators set to work: Sarah Gazdowicz, Molly Kimmerling, Amy Meyer, Beth Pearson and Kiki Samko as the same/different BETTY incarnations, along with Cameron Cronin and William Schuller as the commie/not quite Keystone cops, all contribute to the whole. To single out one part of the whole over another is impossible. I know. I know. Kharms himself says: “Impossible is a stupid, empty word.” OK. I’ll try again. I can’t/I won’t single out anyone. IMAGINARY BEASTS are the finest ensemble in town.