“Only dead men say what the living think…”
As was the case with many Russian socially conscious artists during the Stalinist era, Nikolai Erdman’s efforts were often met with censorship and persecution. However, after completing his 1928 play The Suicide, subsequently banned by Stalin, the playwright was not only sentenced to prison, but internal exile in Siberia as well. Unfortunately, Erdman was never able to witness a full staging of the play, as it was 12 years after his death in 1970 that The Suicide was first produced in the Soviet Union. It was then not until after the collapse of Communism that Erdman and his work were revered throughout Russia.
Moira Buffini’s free adaptation, Dying for It, now playing at UNC School of the Arts, withholds the rebelliously satirical essence of the original. Therefore, it is quite evident as to why Soviet officials worked diligently to silence the play for so many years.
Set in a slum apartment building in the late 1920’s, the dark comedy chronicles the unemployed and despondent Semyon as negotiation of his family’s dire circumstance has led him to one viable conclusion: committing suicide. Once word of his impending doom spreads throughout the community, everyone from a priest of the church to a member of the intelligentsia all vie for Semyon to kill himself on behalf of their particular causes. Yet as a result of all the bestowed attention, thoughts of suicide are slowly replaced with a desire to live, and the midnight deadline steadily approaches.
The production straddles a fine line between hilarity and heartache as the subject matter tackles a number of socio-political issues within farcical situations. The visuals alone lend themselves beautifully to capturing such a duality. Reilly Miller’s set design, particularly the use of dilapidated doors circling the entirety of the space, present the feeling of one being trapped in the midst of poverty, faced only with metaphorical “closed doors” of opportunity, while also hosting a number of satirically-timed entrances and exits. R. Clare Parker (costume design) and Joel Erwin (wig and makeup design) depict a detailed array of styles ranging from the lower working class to the sequenced extravagances of the flapper Jazz Age. The transformation of young actor Steven Maier into the rotund priest was especially noteworthy.
The cast performed passionately as an ensemble, with great energy and commitment. David Zaldivar as Semyon was exceptionally strong in carrying much of the weight of the play. Zaldivar brought a heighten physicality to the character that allowed all of his acting choices to be deeply grounded in his body. The audience was able to witness despair in his fingertips and excitement in his toes. Adelaide Lummis as Semyon’s wife Masha has the challenge of providing the emotional continuity of the play. Lummis provided a steady pulse of heart to the production with strength and ferocity. Her performance was a constant reminder that at the root of the comedy was the tragic theme of potential lost.
Although the production was a bit long, running just over two hours, every minute was packed with excitement and humor that caused the audience to question exactly what they are living for.
Dying for It continues through Sunday, December 7. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.