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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Goodbye Cruel World
Theatre Pro Rata
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin, Six Degrees of Separation, Dinner at Eight and Citizen: An American Lyric and Kit's review of Thurgood


Elizabeth Efteland and Derek Meyer
Photo by Ben Tallen
Theatre Pro Rata has mounted a winning production of Goodbye Cruel World, a farce set in Moscow during the 1920s, the first decade of the Soviet Union and communist rule. It pokes satiric fun at the idea of personal sacrifice for the state, critiques the absence of truth in public discourse, and works as a smart domestic comedy. Its setting provides insights into a past time in a distant place, though it is easy enough to find parallels to current events at home.

This play by Robert Ross Parker, had its debut off Broadway in 2010, but the play has a long history. It is an adaptation of Russian writer Nikolai Erdman's comedy The Suicide, written in 1928 and promptly banned by Stalin for perceived slights to the Soviet state and Marxism. It was not performed in Russia until 1990, long after Erdman's death in 1970. However, the play lent itself to multiple translations and adaptations. Its first English translation was used in a 1979 Royal Shakespeare Company production. Another English translation, staged by Trinity Square Playhouse in Providence, transferred to Broadway in 1980. In England, one adaptation called Dying For It was produced in 2007, another called The Grand Gesture ran in 2013, and a National Theatre production in 2016 kept the original title but changed the setting to contemporary urban London. In 2012, a Chinese adaptation called Guns, Lies and Roses played in Beijing.

Goodbye Cruel World tells the same story as the original, in a frothy, comic manner, extending a broad wink as it exaggerates its characters' eccentricities, cultivates misunderstandings, and plots the comings and goings at a whiz-bang pace. At the same time, it is laden with wit, and uses language to pull off numerous intellectual tricks, raising questions of telling the truth versus telling a good story, and what is the nature of personal sacrifice.

The play is about Semyon Semyonovich Podsekalnikov, who has been unemployed for a year and lives off his wife's meager earnings in a run-down apartment shared with his mother-in-law. The situation has left Semyon depressed, his confidence and self-esteem eroded. Through a series of illogical assumptions, his wife and mother-in-law conclude that Semyon is about to end his life. Frantic, they enlist their neighbor Alexander to help thwart Semyon's suicide. However, Alexander is a conniving fellow. He convinces Semyon that he might as well end his completely worthless, hopeless life. He then offers to the highest bidder the opportunity to write Semyon's suicide note, each taking credit as the noble cause for which Semyon is bravely giving his life.

Soon a leader of the intelligentsia, a priest, an artist, a labor leader, a pair of feuding femme fatales and others are dashing in and out of Semyon's home, intent on persuading him that he is about to give his life for their sake. They even send in a tailor to make sure Semyon is stylishly tailored for his final act. Does Semyon have the courage to follow through with the suicide that so many are urging upon him? Will Maria discover the truth in time to save him? Will Semyon decide that greater honor lies in his life or in his death? I won't tell you the outcome, but can assure you that getting to the answer is devilishly good fun.

Aside from the farcical plotting, much of the humor in Goodbye Cruel World stems from its language. For one thing, the long Russian names create a sense of pomp and rigor totally adverse to the characters behavior. The characters all have strong-sounding names with an abundance of syllables—Semyon's wife's full name is Maria Lukyanovna, his mother-in-law is Serafima Illinichna, the devious neighbor's full name is Alexander Petrovich Kalabushkin, and the speaker for the intelligentsia is Aristarch Dominikovich Gran-Skubic. There is something splendidly ironic about those elaborate names suggesting long, honorable family histories juxtaposed with a society that has become impoverished and corrupt.

There is also delightful wordplay and clever lines that are funny and bracing at once, as when Aristarch, the leader of the intelligentsia, tells Semyon that after his suicide, "Your name will spread from mouth to mouth like a cold sore." A segment in which Semyon believes he can overcome his woes by learning to play the tuba draws on dialogue, sight gags, and its very inanity to be both hilarious and a bit heartbreaking. The delicate question of suicide is even treated with wit, as when Semyon declares that "the government can sentence us to death, but cannot sentence us to life."

The six hard-working actors play multiple roles (I counted 19, but might have missed one or two), but each has a principal persona. Derek Meyer is Semyon, and is able to convey the sad-sack condition of his psyche while still drawing sympathy for him. He allows Semyon to be a bit simple and easily swayed by others without losing his inner spirit. Elizabeth Efteland does well as Semyon's wife, sometimes nagging, other times tenderly concerned for him. Katie Kaufman is hilarious as Serafima, the mother-in-law. Efteland and Kaufman are appropriately over the top as the vain, competitive stage actresses Raisa Filipovna and Cleopatra Maximovna. Ben Tallen gives an excellent performance as the two-faced manipulator Alexander, while James Ramlet's booming voice and imperious bearing is a perfect fit for Aristarch. Edwin Stout is an energetic upstart as Eygorushka, a mailman and unionist. The company works splendidly together as an ensemble, even sharing roles—several actors play Father Elpidi, the priest, each one donning the priest's mitre in their turn, in what becomes a running gag.

Andrew Chambers keeps this plate of hot peppers cooking at full steam for its entire 100 minutes, with constant motion and precision timing of the many exits and entrances, and quick changes by actors who play multiple characters (some of the changes actually made on stage, under the table), without ever losing the thread of Semyon's story. Brian Hesser has designed a set that serves as a suitable playground for the action, providing Semyon and Maria's bedroom and living room, the apartment hallway, a café, and a graveyard within one space, with a variety of portals for unexpected entrances and quick exits. Mandi Johnson's costumes are a whimsical blend of imperial Russian folkloric and proletariat drab. The sound by Jacob M. Davis and lighting by Jon Kirchhofer add to the friskiness of the production.

In spite of the often hilarious text and staging, Goodbye Cruel World offers nutritious food for thought. Advocates for Semyon's suicide argue over the true intent of his grand gesture. Aristarch rebuffs their need for truth, saying that what happened no longer matters; what matters is how the story is told. In the midst of the laughs, that is a chilling statement that gets to the heart of Goodbye Cruel World, and turns a serious light on the dark humor of the piece. When truth is no longer the goal of the storyteller, but rather how an event can be recast to serve their purposes, society risks detachment from reality.

The criticisms of Soviet leadership that prompted Stalin to ban Erdman's The Suicide seem tame by today's standards. Yet, at least as adapted by Parker, Goodbye Cruel World delivers a strong sting to audiences in 2017. As "alternate facts" flood the media, fatuous accusations push serious issues aside, and presidential Tweets must be interpreted with "air quotes," it is good to remember that, funny as Goodbye Cruel World is, with laughter must come reflection. We rally to the story and trounce upon the truth at our peril.

Goodbye Cruel World continues through March 26, 2017, at the Crane Theater, 2303 Kennedy Street N.E., Minneapolis, MN. All tickets are on a sliding scale $14.00 - $41.00, two for one on Sundays with Minnesota Fringe Festival button. For more information and tickets call 612- 234-7135 or go to theatreprorata.org.

Writer: Robert Ross Parker; Director: Andrew Chambers; Set Design: Brian Hesser; Costume Design: Mandi Johnson; Lighting Design: Jon Kirchhofer; Sound Design: Jacob M. Davis; Prop Design: Corinna Troth; Stage Manager: Clara Costello; Producer: Carin Bratlie Wethern.

Cast: Elizabeth Efteland (Maria and others), Katie Kaufmann (Serafima and others), Derek Meyer (Semyon and others), James Ramlet (Aristarch and others), Edwin Stout (Eygorushka and others), Ben Tallen (Alexander and others).


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