Presented by imaginary beasts
By Daniil Kharms
Directed by Matthew Wood
Dramaturgy by Matthew McMahan
Review by Gillian Daniels
(Boston, MA) A joke in the absurdist, Stalin-era work of Daniil Kharms is the same as a violent pratfall: random, shocking in its flippancy, and somehow charming. The punchlines in Knock! The Daniil Kharms Project involve a man forgetting his name due to a number of bricks dropped on his head or a romantic couple disappearing in the middle of the night by the secret police. Utilizing a fun, avant-garde set design by Christopher Bocchiaro and Matthew Woods, imaginary creatures adapts Kharms’ experimental black humor with confidence. The theatre group doesn’t let anything like a sketchy plot or a lingering sense of doom from an oppressive government get in the way of a good time.
Stand-out performances include Molly Kimmerling as the chilling Baboushka, a laughing old woman who bullies an author, potentially THE author of the play’s crooked fiction, Fedya (William Schuller), into writing. When unable to commit anything he feels is important to paper, he produces perfect nonsense that resolves itself into sinister tragedies. Their story is unique among the twenty-five or so conversations, monologues, and pratfalls depicted on stage, but shares many of the same elements. Kharms writes about a broken, juttering mess of a world, a Soviet Union where all promises have soured horribly. Why not adapt his work into a play that feels broken as well?
Kharms’ work for adults remained largely unpublished during his lifetime, mostly pieces preserved in journals. That fragmentation is seen with shorts leading virtually nowhere, yet a strong, bleak mood prevails. This is largely due to the excellent direction of Matthew Woods and an elastic adaptation by Matthew McMahon. For those hoping to see the disapparate character arcs and stories resolve themselves into a solid plot, this probably isn’t the show for you. Others familiar with politically-driven fiction involving secret police and nameless officials may be a bit jaded toward this sort of work despite its vaudevillian sheen.
Kharms’ own life was brilliant and quirky—due to a fascination with Sherlock Holmes, for example, he dressed in a British-style jacket—but ended in grim conditions. Just as the characters in KNOCK! disappear in the night, so did he in 1941, when the caretaker of his flat called him down in his slippers “for a few minutes” to be arrested by officials. He was afterward sent to a prison psychiatric hospital and died there from starvation in 1942. The first collected editions of his work weren’t published until the 1970’s.
imaginary beasts’ production is a worthy tribute with humor that never lapses into self-parody and a sense of seriousness that stays sublime rather than simply dire. There is already something grim and deadly lingering under the floorboards, KNOCK! seems to say. Why not attempt to joke about it before it consumes you completely?