Shotgun's 'KILL THE DEBBIE DOWNERS! KILL THEM! KILL THEM! KILL THEM OFF! Is Urgent
I guess the word of the week is urgent, followed by the more technically apt “devised” (a process by which some theater pieces are put together Frankenstein style). You aren’t producing a play; you’re producing a number of fragments that kind of cohere emotionally and thematically, or just rest together in their own special way.
Mark Jackson and Beth Wilmurt have a long-standing relationship with Chekov’s The Three Sisters. Their devised Yes Yes To Moscow (which Jackson directed and Wilmurt starred in) was an eighty-minute comic romp, an inversion of the play’s signature wish — “We must go back to Moscow!” — that somehow worked itself around to a striking wistfulness that was, well, Chekhovian. And Wilmurt’s cabaret show, Olga, imagines the most sisterly of the three sisters as a game chanteuse, entertaining soldiers and yes, wishing to leave her provincial home and conquer the big stage that is Moscow and the world. It’s ending is also striking and wistful, so again Chekhovian.
One might say that KILL THE DEBBIE DOWNERS! KILL THEM! KILL THEM! KILL THEM OFF! kicking off the Shotgun Players’ 28th season is the third of the Jackson-Wilmurt Sisters, the last of the trilogy, or maybe the third of the quartet, or merely the unruly middle child of the quintet, who knows? Maybe we just need to slip them a copy of Uncle Vanya or The Cherry Orchard. Whatever its final position, DD TRIPLE KILL is both less contained and successful than its predecessors, but also — and this is what you should care about — more aesthetically and philosophically urgent. We’ll also add alert to the future. That too is Chekhovian, the other, less recognized one, but the one you get here and the one you should want.
What we’re going to get is not, as the German idealists would say, the “thing in itself” — devised works are always bits and pieces of literary fragments, actor improvisation, directorial whim, and the sense of the moment. If that sounds wrong to you, the play is easily available for anyone who needs to experience every last line and stage direction. No, what we get here is a glancing blow against a monolith of meaning, the emotions that the idea of The Three Sisters stirs — in performers, in audiences, in Jackson and Wilmurt who can’t let it go, and all those both literate and less so who have heard that there were, and still are three discontented sisters in Russia. Olga, Marsha, and Irina dream of running away, going someplace beautiful, and starting all again with everything that they have learned.
And in a way, so does this production: to live and feel under a new aesthetic regime, a utopian double to all the productions and interpretations that have come before it, including Jackson and Wilmurt’s previous excursions. So we can say that our directorial duo is correct in their artistic assessment and unending assault on Chekhov’s Sisters. It is a work that imagines a future in which it will lose literary coherence, but gain in emotive force.
I’m Going To Make Some Criticisms.
Do Not Quit Reading!
You should go and visit the ‘DEBBIE DOWNERS!’
I’m going to tell you why, but I have to, you know, criticize first:
The set is beautiful, a wall of opaque glass that changes color with all the grace of a ballet scrim, a chandelier that does what chandeliers do, some chairs possibly borrowed from a rich patron’s dacha, an upright piano stage left, this is all you need to launch a thousand fragments. There are the sisters in profile, gazing west, just as we always imagine them, have always (tense and yearning). Stuck in mud or at least their seats, they sing Dave Malloy’s plaintive “Prayer” from his Ghost Quartet with lyrics such as these: “I will try to forgive myself/for living in the dark/for my loss of wonder/for forgetting how to play.”
Even though I’m criticizing, it’s a striking opening and reminder of what’s on the line for any performance. The idea of losing oneself and forgetting that there is a world of wonder and play is essential to Chekhov, and it is an essential theatrical notion, too. But if we were playing a game — audience versus performance — Jackson and Wilmurt’s opening salvo would be a draw. Malloy’s song is apt, but doesn’t really advance the case of what they’re after. It’s merely an, “okay; this is where we stand.”
I’ve got to set this up better.
The Three Sisters is in four acts and THE DOWNERS is similarly structured: four distinct sections over its 105-minute running time. Like Chekhov, Jackson and Wilmurt begin with introductions. Olga, Irina, and Marsha give a brief overview of the situation—father dead, Irina’s birthday, if only we could go back to Moscow. Of course, what else is a beginning for if not setting the scene, living a bit in a new world before the real action happens?
And that’s the first misstep of Kill! Kill! Kill! The opening is caught up in the idea of what we’re seeing rather than the experience of what’s before us. I’m tempted to write the experience of what we’re experiencing, which is actually closer to the problem. The introductions are fine, maybe necessary, though they like the Malloy tune tread water. But there’s a lot of stylized movement that borders on dancing, less fine; a speech by actor Nathaniel Andalis (who plays the villainous Solyony) about meta-theatrics and how he doesn’t care if we like that sort of thing or not, which seems about a hundred years too late to shock or register; and a bit of indiscriminate tap dancing, which doesn’t land as well as it should.
Or to sum it up, there are a lot of ideas and false starts here. Now, I’m sure one could intellectually justify it all. There’s a lurching quality to the beginning of The Three Sisters as well, and Chekhov is aware of the many frustrations that come with even starting a play: read The Seagull. But the opening of KILL is too freighted with ideas about what the theater is, and why we’ve come, and what we expect, problems and questions that the rest of the production will thankfully and gracefully sidestep.
What it’s like to improvise your way through life
The second act of The Three Sisters is famous for its drunken party and it’s where KILL THEM! comes to life. Olga takes over the narration and leads us through a typical day, which she promises will end without a party. With the actors riffing their way through fragments of scenes, the production takes on the haphazard joys of the outtake. Each scene, even individual lines take on the quality of brief and vivid moments of actual life.
Wrested from having to follow a narrative, our attention heightens. I believe many years ago at one of those kind of theater salon parties that theater people throw for their own amusement, I overheard Jackson and Wilmurt claiming that their favorite parts of most shows are the production photos, that they would rather look at these bits of reconstructed “play” than, well, actually seeing the real thing. People laughed, but all jokes contain a hint of a wish and in many ways that’s what DOWNERS starts to feel like — the startling bits you remember in photos.
Freed from the ideas of the first section, what bursts to the forefront in the second is a series of daring attempts to narrow Chekhov’s shaggy dog aesthetics to a few vivid memories. Of course, that’s what would happen two hours after the show, or a day or two later, or a week, you remember the high points and that’s it. So it’s a little uncanny that KILL! anticipates what naturally happens anyway.
When the party finally does come, as we know it must, Jackson, Wilmurt, and the cast jettison the play (lines and stage directions) and give us theater game after theater game. It’s a goofy and glorious abstraction of the idea of a party, and yet all of it comes from The Three Sisters, in its values, beliefs, and logic, and in that way couldn’t be closer to what Chekhov intended. The DEBBIE party is not an idea, but a refraction of one of the most powerful and lasting theatrical aesthetics of the last hundred years — improvisation as a way of life. And the only thing the directors and cast need (besides talent and skill) is the memory of the play that kicked it all off.
There’s also a famous fire in The Three Sisters and the aftermath of it constitutes the bulk of the third act. How the production weaves that fire into 21st century California is Chekhov at his most furious and forward thinking. At the beginning of the review I said that the word of the week is urgent and that’s what KILL THE DEBBIE DOWNERS! KILL THEM! KILL THEM! KILL THEM OFF! achieves for a stunning twenty or so minutes. You have to go and experience that third section. After a rough beginning, after a fabulously enjoyable thirty-minute riff on the possibility of parties, that you should come to watch these sisters talk about a devastating fire is to experience the shock of the real. Here is one production photo you won’t need a picture to remember, and yet in the stillness of the images on stage are as pretty as one.
The fourth and final section is good, though not as inventive or bracing as the second and third. There’s so much more to be said about Debbie, both for good and ill, but no matter what, this production and productions like it are what free and alive audiences should want. Imperfections are a small price to pay for art that wakes us up to feelings we barely knew we had, which in the end is what Chekhov asks of us and which over a hundred years later — 118 and some change actually — Jackson and Wilmurt ask again. In the ruins and the fragments of many fires, this section of KILL! burns with aesthetic and political urgency
A Few Extraneous Thoughts
Before she enters, the sisters’ awful sister-in-law, Natasha, is behind a glass door, a blurry image. Amanda Farbstein gives a nice comic performance, but the image itself suggested something deeper about the character and reminds me of Francis Bacon’s series of “Screaming Pope” paintings. There were real possibilities here. Instead of Natasha as a comic foil, we should have gotten Natasha as a screaming monster, terrified and terrifying. And for a moment you think that might happen, but Jackson and Wilmurt veer in another direction.
I can’t think of a production where the cast rose and fell so much with the quality of the material. In the shaky opening section, they were shaky. In the striking and daring second and third sections they were striking and daring. And in the last section, they were good without being transcendent. It’s as if they mirrored the material perfectly and provided a kind of critical response to the piece as they were performing it.
This can’t be stressed enough: this production was made for the Shotgun audience. When most of our non-profit, regional theaters have become part of what I would call the corporate industrial product of the American theater, Shotgun has continued to believe that they are producing theater for real people in a real city in a real region and that no matter whether the work is experimental or mainstream, that work is for them, their audience. That should be the norm. That it’s an achievement is a sad commentary on the Bay Area and American theater scene.
‘KILL THE DEBBIE DOWNERS! KILL THEM! KILL THEM! KILL THEM OFF!’ runs through April 21 at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley. For tickets and information click here.