Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Return of the Bedbug
Also see Bob's review of The Clean House
One thing you can count on from the Upstream Theater Company is its magnificent grasp of atmosphere. Whether the setting is the war-torn Middle East, or the lonely Irish countryside, or (now) the absurd world of the working man, Upstream Theater will not only take you there, they'll set you up with gas, food and lodging for your stay.
Philip Boehm has written and directed the latest play for the company, based on Klop, or The Bedbug, a 1929 "grotesque satire" by V. V. Mayakovsky. And, once again, Upstream's sense of place is remarkable. The comedy in this richly conceived production builds steadily in a series of ironic Vaudeville routines that center on a Soviet-era lightbulb changer. That man, Ivan, is played by the delightful J. Samuel Davis, whom we meet in his 1980s apartment, preparing for a date. But before his lovely Zoya can arrive, we learn more about Ivan during drinks with his amiable friend (Carl Overly, Jr.), and about his dysfunctional country, thanks to a visit from a postman (Joe Hanrahan).
Return of the Bedbug makes its indictments gently, but with unerring accuracy: Ivan pours imaginary tea from a dry samovar; finds an important letter has been delayed by a month; and then watches as a geneticist (also played by Mr. Hanrahan) and his daughter (the excellent Briston Ashe) play a duet with non-existent violins. Like the violins, or the invisible tea from the samovar, every element of human grace has dried up, surviving only in the imagination. Not to worry, though: Ivan is about to wake up in the land of plenty, where things have become ... well, okay, not so different after all.
But first there is the unexpected arrival of a distant American cousin, and we must find out how many Communists it takes to change a lightbulb. During that amusing sight-gag, there is an unfortunate accident where the scientist has been working to clone a humble bedbug, and Ivan is plunged into a coma. All of this is staged against a backdrop of poetic decay, with Ali Bazargani supplying a delicate, evocative musical accompaniment.
Jane Paradise floats on air as Lili, the ebullient American cousin, and (in keeping with the oddly storybook mood) Don McClendon is her cat. Twenty years go by before Ivan wakes up a half a world away, but Bedbug finds a clever way of speeding his acclimation to present day America: the cat (Mr. McClendon) simply zaps both of them with a TV remote, fast forwarding them through discovery after discovery. (This theatrical device may also explain why today's house cats seem so bored: they've seen it all before, in forward and reverse motion.)
But it's not all decadent American ice creams and unpredictable La-Z-Boy recliners after that. Ivan, who grew up in the double-talking Soviet bureaucracy, finds something very familiar has also taken root in the American consumer economy of the 21st century: Ms. Ashe returns as a department store clerk, confounding him with rules that change from moment to moment; and Mr. Overly comes back as a street-wise fool in the corporate gulag, where the cheerful Ivan fits right in.
Separately, the geneticist has also come to America, just as Ivan's girlfriend completes her own dogged pursuit as well. Zoya, played by the brilliant Kari Ely (older and stripped of all her heavy act one cosmetics) is astonishing in her soft-spoken heartbreak, not merely to find that Ivan has maintained his youth, but that he has also moved on. Things take a surprising but perhaps inevitable turn after that.
It's a terrific story, full of winning performances (and nearly half of them supplied by Ms. Ashe). Carrie Houk and Laura McConnell also appear as Soviet and American-style TV reporters, with great comic banality. There are one or two little moments that might be snipped off without being missed (I'm thinking of the show's "who's on first" tribute in particular), but many, many more moments that work just fine. The crass consumerism of act two even springs wickedly outside the box, as Mr. Hanrahan's real-life theater company gets a plug in a "TV news feature," right after focusing on him as the geneticist of this play.
The Return of the Bedbug continues through November 11, 2007. Excellent costumes, sets, and props. For information, call (314) 863-4999, or visit them on-line at www.upstreamtheater.org. The theater is located in a former church just south of the Missouri Historical Society on the corner of Skinker and Fauquier Blvds., just south of Wydown Blvd. on the west side of Forest Park. The play was developed through a residency funded by the Fundacion Valparaiso.
*Denotes a member of Actors' Equity.
Poster Art: Joe Iskra