In a match that’s Man versus Monster, how do you think humanity would fare? In Collaborators, the 2011 award winning play by John Hodge (a dramatist and screenwriter known for the films Trainspotting, A Life Less Ordinary, and The Beach), humanity loses. Big time.
In the late 1930s, just before World War II, Russian playwright Mikhail Bulgakov (Paul Reisman) finds himself sharing a “group home” with his wife Yelena and three mismatched, but amiable, comrades: Vasilly (Kim Curtis), Praskovya (Mindy Shaw), and Sergei (Ryan Carlo Dalusung).
Bulgakov has just completed a play about his hero, Molière, and is regularly nightmare-ing about Stalin (Joe Duquette). The former gains applause from his wife and friends, including Grigory (Robert Bowen Smith) and Anna (Amal Saade), but a visit to a doctor (Steve Beall) confirms a terminal kidney illness and then a pair of NKVD Officers show up at his door.
Vladimir (G. Michael Harris) is a doughy, seemingly clownish man with a sing-song deliverance of terrible things, and Stepan (Sha Golanski) is the muscle and menace to Vladimir’s joker. A piece of grizzled rage wrapped in a leather trench who simply watches.
They inform Bulgakov that his incendiary Molière play, and all future writing, is subsequently banned unless he pens a triumphant (!) new one about Stalin to honor his upcoming 60th birthday. Bulgakov is, after all, Stalin’s favorite playwright.
He agrees tepidly (as one who is being bullied often does), sealing the deal with a shake of Vladimir’s hand.
“You’ve been in showbiz too long,” Vladimir tells a skeptical Bulgakov. “In the secret police, a man’s word is his bond.”
And, then, something too strange to be true: Joseph Stalin calls Bulgakov and meets him clandestinely each night beneath a metro station to author the play himself while he nonchalantly encourages Bulgakov to read and sign his work. Laws. Orders. Economic missives.
Yep, they job swap, in what Stalin declares as “our little secret,” followed by uncontrollable, not quite, maniacal laughter. Duquette’s Joseph Stalin begins most of his exchanges with a hearty, happy, “What’s up?” and jovially complains about job stress as if he simply administers contracts at a DC consulting firm.
Collaborators is not rancorously funny, but laugh-aloud-amusing moments abound, usually while just hovering slightly above the surface of something sinister.
And, make no mistake, Collaborators is sinister.
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Collaborators is chock full of wonderful characters and is elegantly directed, staged, and set-up under Richard Henrich’s guidance. The flow from scene to scene sways like a pendulum. From playful to baleful. Measured. Measured. Measured. Until the final minutes when a frenzy envelops Bulgakov as he unravels, watching his words become unfailingly, relentlessly absolute—costing him everyone in life he loves. Grigory and Anna. His housemates. And, finally, his Yelena.
Reisman and Duquette have chemistry befitting a great couple—an odd one, but a couple nonetheless—but G. Michael Harris’ Vladimir steals the show: an NKVD Officer who fancies himself an artist and directs the aforementioned play about Stalin, upholding him as if he is a genuine savior. Vladimir is a buffoon and an enormous ass, but he is, surprisingly, no monster. In his last moments he beseeches Bulgakov to write a final, climatic scene that outs Stalin for the psychopath he is.
“We’re probably fucked anyway,” he tells Bulgakov. “Terror is coming. Up until now, it’s just been a warm-up.”
He speaks a basic truth Bulgakov has long forgotten through his late nights with the happy-go-lucky Stalin and that even Bulgakov’s friends could no longer impress upon him.
All the supporting players—Beall, Curtis, Shaw, Dalusang, Saade, Smith and Liz Dutton (in several small roles including Eva, Vladimir’s wife)—perform solidly, providing a foundation for some of the funniest and most horrifying moments. MacKenzie Beyer’s Yelena is the constant rock that reminds Bulgakov of what is right, while Willem Krumich and Matthew Marcus provide some super funny moments as the actors rehearsing the abhorrent, and erroneous, play. They are on point in highly physical scenes with swift, precise movements conveying all sorts of ridiculousness about Stalin, the myth.
But, Stalin, the man, cannot be so easily derided. “Killing is easy,” he tells Bulgakov with a twinkle in his eye, “Breaking someone is the challenge.”
Spoken like a true monster.
Spooky Action Theater’s Collaborators is a layered look at creativity, psychology, and history that will give you something new to think about viewing and after viewing. If you dare to relive such a dark moment in time more than once. I think I will.
Collaborators by John Hodge . Directed by Richard Henrich . Featuring: Paul Reisman, Joe Duquette, MacKenzie Beyer, Kim Curtis, Mindy Shaw, Ryan Carlo Dalusung, Steve Beall, Willem Krumich, Matthew Marcus, Amal Saade, Liz Dutton, Robert Bowen Smith, G. Michael Harris, Sha Golanski; Production: Bridget Grace Sheaff (Assistant Director), Giorgos Tsappas (Set Design), Brian S. Allard (Lighting Design), David Crandall (Sound Design), Alisa Mandel (Costume Design), Becky Mezzanotte (Properties), Mariana Fernandez (Scenic Artist), Charles Cobb (Technical Director/Master Electrician), Lynn Sharp Spears (Mask Maker), Natalia Zhiteneva and Oksana Tkachenko (Costume Assistants), David Norman North (Carpenter), and Casey Kaleba (Fight Choreographer), Kate Kilbane (Stage Manager) , Allie Alexander (Assistant Stage Manager). Produced by Spooky Action Theater . Reviewed by Kelly McCorkendale.