Russian playwright Ivan Vyrypaev, whose play Oxygen is being produced by Taffety Punk, is a proponent of the experimental school of New Drama where plot and character are no longer the basis of drama. New Drama playwrights often interview subjects and use their words verbatim as dialogue, attempting to knit a semblance of character from the words with the action happening not on stage, but in recollection.
Such plays have become fairly common over the years, but Oxygen takes it a few levels further. Conceived, in the author’s words, as a “live concept album,” Oxygen is not exactly a play, but not exactly performance art either. Though scripted, it feels like a concert.
The cast is made up of two actors (Mark Krawczyk and Esther Williamson) holding microphones and a DJ (Dan Crane) spinning original tracks by local musicians, including Edie Sedgwick, The Gena Rowlands Band, Jupiter Rex, and Kathy Cashel. Fans of hip-hop will be familiar with the set up, but the music is not hip hop, or at least not always. Most of what the musicians have produced evokes the electronic music of Russia, where the performance is symbolically set.
The lyrics/ dialogue that sit on top of the ten tracks are stuffed with imagery and metaphor, each drawing on a theme. Early in the performance, the tracks call on the Biblical commandments and the Sermon on the Mount, but this conceit fades out in later tracks. Krawczyk goes solo on the first track, but afterwards, both performers share the mic. Sometimes their lines are spoken, sometimes rapped, sometimes sung. Each track in what feels like a condensed opera contains numerous passages; some are like arias, others are like recitative. The performers trade monologues and share dialogue as they talk both about and around the themes.
There are two characters here: Sasha from the City, and Sasha from the Country. But this is the thing though: the performers are not always portraying them; sometimes they are merely commenting on these two human beings. And you ask yourself: are they acting or emceeing? They are doing both, and it’s often hard to tell when. Also, it seems, Krawczyk and Williamson change off what character they are playing. The show can be frustrating that way.
Sasha (both) was born in the last generation of the Soviet Union. Who knows what direction their lives might have taken had the world of their adulthood taken the course they were shown in their childhood. But, at the crest of their adolescence, the cold warriors overthrew Secretary Gorbachev, but could only hold the country for a day. The individual republics took control of their people, and the Soviet Union vanished like flash paper.
What happens when the walls that circumscribe us crumble to the ground? We are forced outward; we spend our lives walking unlit paths that likely lead nowhere.
Nothing sustains Sasha. S/he gropes through a world s/he was not heir to. Try as s/he might, nothing will make his/ her life less meaningless. S/he creates a backstory that is probably part true, but mostly a fabrication to fill the empty space. Images abound of foreign lands that neither character has actually been to. Grisly details of a murder that might be true are related throughout the performance, yet nothing is resolved.
Ivan Vyrypaev’s Oxygen can sometimes feel like a bunch of ideas thrown in the air, landing where they may on the stage in confused patterns. Some were compelling, some were not. From where I sat, the strengths at the very least made up for the weaknesses.
By Ivan Vyrypaev
Directed by Lise Bruneau
Produced by Taffety Punk
Reviewed by Steve Hallex
75 minutes with no intermission