In Soviet Russia, Stalin writes play for you.
Photo by Michael Abrams
What would you do if you had to govern Soviet Russia? This question is at the heart of The Storm Theatre Company's surreal new play Collaborators, written by John Hodge and directed by Peter Dobbins. The production follows a subset of Russian society we do not often think about in popular representations of the dark years of Joseph Stalin's reign: the intellectuals, writers and even playwrights who found themselves constrained to a particular set of rules but still expected to produce their art for the glory of their country.
Mikhail Bulgakov is a moderately successful playwright living in Moscow who has the fortune—or misfortune, depending on your perspective—to have written a piece that Joseph Stalin loves. A month before their glorious leader's birthday, Mikhail receives a visit by the secret police with an unusual command: to write a play documenting and celebrating Stalin's youth. Plagued by illness and a guilty conscience, he cannot bring himself to write the piece, but soon that ceases to be an issue when Stalin shows up and decides he wants to write the play himself. In exchange, Mikhail gets to spend a few weeks running the USSR.
It takes a while to realize just what sort of play you are watching, but once everything clicks you soon discover you are in the midst of a dark psychological thriller. You witness Mikhail's succumbing to the seductions of wealth and privilege that come with Stalin's favor, his attempts to justify and excuse the leader's new laws after hearing them explained with such confidence from the man himself and eventually his own complicity in the decisions that cost his friends their liberty and their lives. And though at 2 hours and 20 minutes run time, the slow build into this realization takes entirely too long, there is plenty to entertain you while it happens.
Just because Collaborators takes place in 1938 Moscow does not mean that the actors are stiff or overly formal. Instead, there is a deliberate familiarity amongst all the characters, including modern unaccented speech (other than an inexplicably British valet), a secret police agent lounging on Mikhail's bed and on-the-nose musical choices from The Nutcracker to the Soviet anthem. A strong ensemble cast embraces the absurdity of the play's central premise, while the central trio of characters make this unexpected tone believable. Brian J. Carter performs our liberal everyman writer with nuance, but it is Ross DeGraw's larger-than-life and yet common man presence as Stalin and Robin Haynes' delightfully unexpected artistry as secret policeman and theatrical ingenue Vladimir who steal the show.
The staging of the production is likewise unusual. The main setting is a beautifully detailed Soviet-era apartment, conveniently taking advantage of the clanking pipes and circling flies in St. Mary's Church, but enough scenes meant to take place in other locations are staged in that area that locations become unclear. Meanwhile, though the actors circling the audience are unexpected and exciting, the secondary space signifying the theater Mikhail's plays are staged in is pushed off to the side and difficult for much of the audience to see.
Ultimately, Collaborators accomplishes what it sets out to do, providing an amusing, absurd snapshot into the lives of the haves and have-nots of the USSR until the true hidden horror of the piece hits you. Mikhail's developing relationship with Stalin, Vladimir's hidden artistic temperament and the humorous tidbits from characters such as happy-go-lucky factory worker Sergei (Joshua R. Pyne) all contribute to an energetic, engaging performance of a surreal "based on a true story" world. While secondary plots such as Mikhail's relationship with his roommates and his wife Yelena or his spontaneously appearing and disappearing illness do not reach their full potential, the play is certainly an unforgettable experience.
Sitting quietly at center stage is a simple, heavy typewriter, around which lives begin and end, and civilizations rise and fall. If there is anything that Collaborators believes in, it is the power of theater and of the written word.
Collaborators plays at the Grand Hall at St. Mary's Church through February 13.
This article was previously published on CHARGED.fm.