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The Human Snake Pit


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Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Chernobyl was not like the communist system. They were one and the same. The system ate into our bones the same way radiation did. --Physician Yuri Shcherbak, quoted in David Remnick's book Lenin's Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire

I've really fucked up. --Soviet defense minister Dmitri Yazov, a leader of the failed August 1991 anti-Gorbachev coup, quoted in the same book

At the start of Angels in America: Perestroika, the second half of Tony Kushner's two-part drama, the world's oldest living Bolshevik addresses the Kremlin to protest the tidal wave of democratic reform sweeping over the Soviet Union.

"How are we to proceed without Theory?" he cries, with all the biblical passion implied by his comical name, Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov. "What have you to offer in its place? . . . If the snake sheds his skin before a new skin is ready, naked he will be in the world, prey to the forces of chaos. . . . Have you, my little serpents, a new skin?"

Prelapsarianov turns up in Slavs!, Kushner's one-act, 90-minute coda to the epic-length Angels. So does his warning--both in words (reiterated pretty much verbatim from Angels) and through example. Set in two parts--just before the ascension of Mikhail Gorbachev and just after Gorbachev's deposement and the breakup of the USSR--Slavs! is a sketch of Russia in decay: first stumbling under failing communism and later succumbing to political instability and a disastrous nuclear policy of which the Chernobyl cover-up was only the most dramatically deadly example. The grimness of this depressing subject matter is reinforced by daily headlines, as Russia and her onetime satellites descend ever deeper into chaos.

Yet Slavs! is at least half comedy: a collection of absurdist vignettes that add up to a play, rather like David Mamet's Sexual Perversity in Chicago. If the end result in both works is a dismayingly dark portrait of the human condition, the details that make up the overall picture are witty and sometimes hilarious, written in flights of passionate, rhythmically charged language spoken by strongly and affectionately drawn characters. Like Chekhov, whose plays from a century ago were similar mixes of wry humor and pathos, Kushner is fascinated by Russian society in a time of radical restructuring; but where Chekhov expressed a belief in the endurance of humanity if not the czarist system, Kushner is skeptical of our survival. The world of Slavs! is a human snake pit crawling with skinless serpents, prey to political and spiritual chaos.

In the play's various encounters through to its weary, wary, inconclusive ending, one can feel Kushner wrestling with his own disillusionment with leftist idealism. There is important work still to be done, he suggests at one point; fuck this century and all its governments, he rages later. This intensity of feeling, this engagement of the author's heart and mind, is what makes the play's power outweigh its brief length and slick comedic surface. It's what makes Kushner an important writer despite his small output. It's what makes Slavs! a memorable, moving work of theater--one that deals with real emotions and ideas--unlike Steppenwolf's previous studio production, the similarly large-themed Picasso at the Lapin Agile, which pandered to audience sentiment in a way Slavs! never stoops to.

Eric Simonson's emotionally detailed staging--evocatively designed by Scott Bradley (sets), Kevin Rigdon (lights), Karin Kopischke (costumes), and Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen (sound and music)--is for the most part skillfully played by some of Chicago's best actors, the only drawback being their inconsistent Russian accents. Nathan Davis (as Prelapsarianov), William J. Norris, Bradley Mott, Bernie Landis, and Jim Mohr are a convincing cabal of aging apparatchiks, bewildered and humiliated by their wrenchingly reordered world; the jiggle-jowled Landis is especially amusing in the early scenes, and Norris shines later as he tries to hide his naturally grim nature to charm a silent child (the touching Heather Marie Johnson) into speaking. She can't; she's a mutant rendered speechless by radiation poisoning--a spiritual cousin of the prophetic AIDS-patient hero of Angels. Amy Morton and Mariann Mayberry, both reliable performers, team up in a marvelous scene about a punk lesbian (Mayberry) and her conservative, older lover (Morton), who's torn between her feeling for the younger woman and her belief that homosexuality is a product of decadent capitalist imperialism. They're later joined in the play's gripping climax by Martha Lavey as the mutant child's mother: an unforgettable, stripped-down figure, robbed not only of her daughter but of her faith.

And faith is finally what Slavs! is all about. Though it aims for (and often achieves) a classically Russian quality of melancholy bemusement (just as Angels is archetypically American in its smart-ass wisecracking), Slavs! is a universal statement, not a historic or ethnic one: We are all Slavs, and we all need something to believe in. Some of the play's characters worship God or saints; some worship Lenin, or Marx, or the party; some worship democracy and free-market capitalism; at least one worships an unnamed new leader (Zhirinovsky?) who will reclaim the people's dignity. The two lesbians worship love; it's what keeps them going (in Siberia yet) when despair overtakes everything else. It's the one thing, in Kushner's view, that makes the difference between Slavs and slaves.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.

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