StageStruck: Theater With Friends

The scene: a TV studio, home of “a hot new youth-oriented Moscow television production company.” Through a window, the interior of a caf? across the street is visible. In the studio, six young media professionals work, chat and flirt. They are contemporary Russia’s “golden youth,” Gen Nexters with brains, talent and spending cash—”young, hip and attractive,” sporting young, hip clothes and cool nicknames: Maniac, Blizzard, Orangina.

As they work, Maniac begins a desultory conversation on the nature of love:

“The sensation reminds you of fear. You feel it between your solar plexus and your neck. You know it because you feel the desire to touch. To see, to hear, to smile and to be embarrassed.”
| 7:04 p.m. | Like | Comment |

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Yes, “friends,” we’re not in a theater, but on line, following the Facebook thread of Flying. The documentary play by Olga Mukhina, one of a new generation of playwrights exploring life in post-Soviet Russia, is being performed in Austin, Texas, this month. But for a ticket price of $5, you can eavesdrop on the show from home, on the play’s Facebook fan page.

The on-stage performance is a collaboration between two Austin-based companies, the experimental Rude Mechanicals and Breaking String Theatre, which specializes (in Texas, of all places) in Russian drama. The virtual presentation comes via the Canada-based online arts and culture magazine nthWORD. Each night of the Austin run, actors (well, keyboarders) associated with nthWORD post a scene from the play, line by line in real time, delivered as successive comments on the Facebook page.

All eight characters in Flying have their own Facebook profiles (Maniac is a fan of Vladimir Nabokov and enjoys acrobatics and BASE jumping). The audience is invited not only to post their own comments at the conclusion of each episode, but to “friend” the characters and interact with them outside the boundaries of the script. “The performers have been instructed to improvise dialogue while remaining in character,” explains nthWORD‘s publisher, Robert Frigault.

Flying is based on Mukhina’s interviews with 15 of Moscow’s “golden youth.” The six composite characters in the play are smart and articulate but self-absorbed, flying high but poised to self-destruct, and willfully oblivious to each other’s signs of crisis—Lenochka’s black eye, Maniac’s extreme pastime, Snowflake’s pill-popping. Their solipsistic bubble is pierced by two outsiders, contemporaries but not part of their gilded circle: a naive waitress and a policeman.

Mukhina is a founder of Russia’s New Drama, a movement that rejects the mainstream classics (Chekhov et al.) to dig into the problems that arose with the fall of communism and the social and economic free-for-all that has produced anxiety, alienation and addiction in a generation newly freed from totalitarian restraints. She’s been called “the Little Red Riding Hood of contemporary Russian drama, [with] the nerve to go out there in the woods, not fearing the wolf.”

Frigault hopes this kind of online theater can become a non-competing “alternative to real-world performances, to make it accessible to more people.” As he observes, “We can’t all be in Texas tonight.”

Half the play has been performed online so far. Those scenes are still up on the Facebook page, so latecomers can catch up. The virtual play concludes this weekend and next. Tickets are available at nthword.com/flying.

Author: Chris Rohmann

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