The first, titled Uzbek, was a stand-up comedy routine, not a play, focusing on themes Russian bureaucracy. Whatever its merits (the actor did a good job), the piece falls outside my purview—though it raises the question, to what extent may unembellished storytelling be classed as theater?
The second, The Store by Olzhas Zhanaydarov, had more substance to it. A two-hander, two actresses face the audience and alternate telling each character’s experience of “the store” with very little interaction between them, and that both perfunctory and pro forma. There was no drama. There were no “stakes.” There was only a mass of reminiscence. Each character told her story, as it were, in either case a dismal affair. That said, the experience—dealing with a case (based on true life) of modern-day slavery occurring in the heart of Moscow—was compelling enough.
The situation described was bad, with the details, as they piled up, showing it to be worse, and worse, and worse, ending only with the death of one of the protagonists. The subject might have done well as a short story; and I don’t wonder if the play’s author mayn’t have found it in such a format—or at least a first-person account in the tabloid magazine. (I say it that way not to diminish horrendous experience, but to qualify it as literary.)
The chief interest lay in the subject matter—and I wonder, would the play bear repeated viewing, or reading? Would a first viewing have been undermined by revelation of the underlying conceit—or, to say it differently, if so-called spoilers had killed all surprise? (I don’t have an answer for that question, though it may be telling, that, knowing what I know, I would be unlikely to revisit the play even in a fully staged performance.”)
The “action,” such as there were, consisted only of two characters talking, at you, the audience, not to each other, with some minimal stage shenanigans revolving around a children’s playlot swingset. The narrator (of the stage directions) was scarcely audible, but nothing was missed, because nothing happened of import; the interest lay in the monologues, each individually and then some in the way they were made to bounce off of each other in juxtaposition.
Modern day slavery—in all its excruciating detail—deserves attention; and the play was worthy in that respect. It was theater, but was it drama? That is another question I have wrestled with, coming to no firm conclusions—though one of my plays, a four-hander, comes close to merely accounting an individual story sans climacteric.
Alison Croggon, on the difference between reading a play or seeing it staged, writes, “I don’t see how one cancels out the other, or how ‘literary’ and ‘dramatic' qualities are mutually exclusive. (Nor, by the way, is all theatre writing ‘drama’—did Beckett write ‘drama?’).” This speaks to another issue which has exercised my imagination in the past—the difference between theater and drama. I have always posited myself—not without pomp—as a practitioner of “drama” explicitly and not just theater, which rightfully comprises many disparate elements.
When it comes to defining drama I find myself at loose ends, however. Generally, I have relied on the Socratic distinction between Comedy and Tragedy, albeit leaving more room for a mix between these polar opposites—if indeed opposite they are. I cannot be sure, because while I have felt, through my own practice and study, to have gotten a hang of the former, what constitutes the latter leaves me flummoxed and perplexed. (I have not read Aristotle on the matter; and recognize that other traditions exist which owe nothing and do not subscribe to the traditional Western dichotomy.)
With Croggon—upon whose judgement you can rely—I find myself at antipodes a little bit. The first time I ever read Beckett—after I had struck out on my own as a playwright—one thing that shone clearly through the words on the page to me might well be summarized: this man really understands comedy. For me, comedy is part and parcel to drama—ergo, Beckett must be drama. That is what he wrote.
The critic sees things from one perspective; the craftsman from another. The critic might have the broader view, the artist his hard-won myopic confidence. We use the same words but differently—and it behooves one to squint in an attempt to understand what his counterpart across the aisle means.
That said, one thing shone forth from both presentations at Silk Road Rising: the strong accent on immigrants and issues of immigration, regardless the Russian context, made the plays (or “pieces”) feel intensely relevant to the calling for justice which prompted so large a gathering in the Chicago morning. More than a play purporting to auspices of “art for art’s sake” would have done.