Austin: Breaking String Theater’s “Flying”

Austin, Texas–As I walked into the Off Center for Breaking String Theater’s production of Olga Mukhina’s Flying (which opened as part of The New Russian Drama Festival, a joint presentation of the Fusebox Festival, Breaking String, and the Rude Mechs; through Feb. 19, tickets $25), I thought of Jason Eskenazi’s collection of photo-essays Wonderland:  A Fairy Tale of the Soviet Monolith. The USSR was a warehouse of memory and “dis-memory”, as Eskenazi puts it, like a childhood dream, or a fairy tale where realities were hidden from plain view. Aided by a less than healthy political relationship, the American theater world has little understanding of what the Russian stage has offered since the Moscow Art Theatre came to the States a century ago, smothered by that Soviet monolith.

Mukhina’s world has little to do with communist Russia. Her world is that of the contemporary (hence the New Russian Drama Festival), a world that since the fall of communism has become a post-modern dystopia of decadence and bad behavior, ruled by the likes of Mikhail Prokhorov.  Sex? Of course. Drugs? For breakfast. BASE jumping (leaping off of bridges, or antennas, or cliffs, or what have you)? That’s relaxation time in the world of Flying.

The story follows the exploits of DJ’s and VJ’s and television princesses with super-cool handles such as Maniac, and Blizzard, and Snowflake. However, this funhouse world is turned on its ear when a teenage girl from the North Country joins the hip scene, and from her innocence the shallow characters begin to self-reflect on their selfish lives. The characters try to go beyond their surface, beyond a skin-deep life, and explore their wants and needs more than just their desires.

The name of Broken String Theater, founded by Austin-ite Graham Schmidt (who also directed the production) comes from an ACT II stage direction in The Cherry Orchard. These cats are serious about their Mother Russia. Schmidt approaches the script with static rhythm, and at times a cosmetic direction (the design is among the best I have seen in that space and reminded me of something I would have seen at HERE Arts Center). The staging often focuses on what seemed to be base level forms of Viewpointing with carefully choreographed ensemble movements that divided the stage into, primarily, three lateral levels.

This technique works well for some scenes, with extreme prejudice to the establishing ten minutes of ACT I, but becomes distracting in others. A scene in which the television star speaks of suicidal morning thoughts needed more restraint. For most of the story the ensemble is tight, and a fine representation of what Austin has to offer the theatre world on a night that saw the playwright in the audience, who traveled all the way from Moscow.

Gricelda Silva, who played the teenage girl, added much needed depth and subtitle to a production that, frankly, needs a little more of that. However, this is not your father’s Russian theater, this is the new stuff, and Schmidt and his gang deserve credit for putting the realities of today’s Russian theater in plain view.  As I walked out of the Off Center I noticed Breaking String Theater describes themselves as “emerging”. I look forward to see what else they have to offer, what other Russian worlds they have uncovered.

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