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Butterflies flitting, tigers roaring, bedbugs skittering—a menagerie descended on D.C. stages this weekend, and darned if all these creatures don’t have something to say about Communism. Our politicos may have moved on to religious crusades, but the theater, bless its soul, is still fighting the Cold War.
Well, not fighting it, exactly. Discussing it, ruminating on it, mocking it, reminiscing about it, and, in the case of the arm-flapping heroine of M. Butterfly, semaphoring its divergent ideologies in a manner more appropriate to the directing of traffic at National Airport.
Happily, The Russian National Postal Service, at the Studio Theatre, and the Rorschach Theatre’s A Tale of a Tiger are more subtle about gestures both political and physical as they examine ideological flux and its impact on the individual. And they have other elements in common, too: Both are essentially one-man shows (never mind the 11 supernumeraries cluttering up Postal Service), both last a scant 75 minutes (never mind the 30-minute coda appended to Tiger), and both deal with loners coping with abandonment by a specifically Communist body politic.
The collapse of the Soviet regime has left elderly Ivan (Floyd King) thoroughly isolated in Oleg Bogaev’s Postal Service, alone in his apartment with a stack of stationery that reaches nearly to his ceiling. When first glimpsed, he’s sitting at a writing table with ballpoint and paper, looking, in his shabby robe, a bit like an elderly Groucho. He picks up the pen, clicks it once, and uses it to clean his ear. Then he begins scribbling a letter, which he seals in an envelope and deposits in a makeshift mail receptacle in the corner. Turning away, he glances back over his shoulder at the receptacle, notices the envelope he’s just placed there, and eagerly retrieves it, tearing it open and devouring its contents. Then he rushes back to the table to scribble a reply.
It turns out he’s engaged in quite a few such phantom correspondences—with long-lost school chums, Queen Elizabeth II, Stalin, Lenin, Robinson Crusoe, a cosmonaut, a movie star, Adolf Hitler’s bastard son, a pair of greenish Martians, and those bedbugs. As his contact with the real world has diminished, his inner world has clearly expanded, providing his days with an imagined purpose and filling his solitude with a kind of comradeship.
As someone who’s recently been watching an elderly relative conjure friends, objects, and all manner of incidents from thin air, I recognize the truth in a scenario that will doubtless strike some observers as simply absurdist. A note in the program suggests that there’s as much Ionesco as Chekhov in Bogaev’s post-Soviet script, and that’s true enough, though both those authors would give secondary figures more to say than this playwright does. With the play’s repetitive structure, content isn’t really the evening’s strong suit. Ivan isn’t going postal—he’s just posting letters, and you watch mostly to see whether he’ll slip the next one into his long-dead TV or maybe fold it into a paper airplane that he can send sailing from his window. King makes the choices seem as spontaneous as they are unpredictable, and he’s pretty haunting at evening’s end, confronting intimations of (im)mortality.
Paul Mullins’ staging surrounds him with fleshly apparitions, but it’s easy to picture a production that would leave them entirely to the audience’s imagination. Except for England’s queen (Catherine Flye) and Russia’s prime mover (Tobin Atkinson), the phantom correspondents don’t say much, and their physical presence, while decorative, doesn’t add anything notable to the proceedings. It may be asking too much of an actor—even one as resourceful as King—to require that he hold an audience’s attention for more than an hour entirely with a bit of accordion playing (Ivan’s practicing for a gig he’s offered himself on national television) and an interior delirium. The protagonist has clearly arrived at a strategy that lets him feel involved in a world that’s passed him by, but the missives the author’s given him aren’t urgent, and their delivery is spotty.
Dario Fo’s A Tale of a Tiger is a parable in which a relentlessly optimistic soldier in Mao’s army escapes a flood by crawling into a cave after his unit leaves him for dead with a gangrenous wound. “I’m saved,” he murmurs to himself. “I’m not going to drown today—I’m going to rot today.” Then he realizes the cave is already occupied, by a tiger with aching teats and her floodwater-sated, decidedly unthirsty cub.
An amusingly symbiotic relationship between man and beasts develops, with the tigress “nursing” the soldier back to health (which solves both their problems), and the soldier defending the animals against villagers when the time comes to return to civilization. Civilization, alas, corrupts their relationship.
Fo wrote A Tale of a Tiger in 1978 as a call for both social solidarity and a people’s revolution against leadership that misrepresents and betrays. For a production in an embattled and politically unstable Israel in 1994, Ami Dayan received permission to alter the ending, transforming the work into a story of reconciliation and growth. For the Rorschach Theatre, Dayan performs his version of the show in its entirety before intermission, then comes back after the break to offer context, along with the original Fo ending (which, he correctly suggests, is more appropriate in 2004 D.C.).
At his final preview, Dayan combined what seemed a natural affability with performing discipline, and he had little trouble getting the audience to roar and wave banners on cue. He travels light, with little more than a few recorded sound cues and a set that resembles monkey bars. Perhaps that’s why his show wears its metaphorical weight so lightly.CP