Presented by imaginary beasts
Directed by Matthew Woods, Joey C. Pelletier, and Michael Underhill
Written by Daniil Kharms
Translation by Zoya Derman
Adapted by The Ensemble
April 10 – May 2, 2015
At the Plaza Black Box Theatre
at the Boston Center for the Arts
539 Tremont Street, Boston MA
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Review by Gillian Daniels
(Boston, MA) The innovative and evocative imaginary beasts continue with their year-long exploration of Stalinist-era author, Daniil Kharms, with Betty Bam! Their last attack on his material, KNOCK!, was a condensed affair, a multi-character and multi-story primer on Kharms’ bleak humor and deeply unsettling monologues. The actors took pratfalls and grafted the absurdist theater onto a sort of vaudeville act. In Betty Bam!, the visual nods remain in the early-twentieth century, but the aesthetic switches to black and white film, page-boy cuts, and a set styled into a cartoon explosion. The five actresses who depict Betty Bam’s fractured identity (Beth Pearson, Amy Meyer, Molly Kimmerling, Sarah Gazdowicz, and Kiki Samko) are each a live action Betty Boop caught in an explosion of a different sort, one that takes the guise of an interruption into their life: the police, Ivan (Cameron Cronin) and Pytor (William Schuller). As with KNOCK!, the police are an oppressive force, one here to take Betty to an unknown fate. The action of taking her away makes up the entirety of the plot.
Unlike the material in KNOCK!, Betty Bam!, or Elizaveta Bam as it was titled in 1927, is more focused. It’s also thinner in breadth and theme. This is earlier work by Kharms, still feeling out what he’s trying to say and how best to say it. Still, imaginary beasts endows it with the energy of its other productions. The momentum is helped by how Betty’s story switches genres in the middle of its scenes: melodrama, comedy, “Radix” comedy, real life drama, and other combinations. The music changes to correspond with each iteration.
Betty Bam, it’s implied, was a person before the police came to the conclusion she murdered a man, and now she’s an idea transmitted between kinds of stories. Her capture is reframed again and again, sometimes in the presence of her bearded father and sometimes with her chicken-egg-obsessed mother there to intimidate the police (both costumed Betties themselves). Betty refers to a husband who isn’t there and, eventually, a house full of mice. Not everything in motion actively has just one meaning, it seems, or even a meaning at all.
This is Kharms at play, Kharms exploding the idea of what constitutes a story, and Kharms exploding a woman’s life into fragments. Here’s Betty terrified of the police and here she is attempting to seduce them; here’s Betty with the head of a cartoon mouse and here she is with two of her doubles in far more realistic mouse masks. The show may not have the scope of KNOCK!, but it absolutely hits on the same formula to bewilder and delight its audience. I enjoyed myself.
Well, to delight an audience, specifically one unafraid of diving into absurdism and a world of symbols and frightening images. Some may shy away from such a unique piece of theater, but Betty Bam! has an edge of mainstream appeal with its use of Betty Boop songs and Ivan and Pyotr, who play off one another like Laurel and Hardy. Its shell is pristine and inviting—cartoons and nostalgic Jazz Era charm—but its core is Betty’s mortality and the lingering question of what will happen to our heroine when the lights at last go out.