Mayakovsky’s THE BEDBUG — A Most Undesirable Companion
Review by Robert Gulack, April 6, 2018
Vladimir Mayakovsky’s 1929 surreal satire play, THE BEDBUG, has been treasured by many Russians (including Marc Chagall), but it is hard to make a case for the script from the Medicine Show Theatre Ensemble’s current revival at 549 West 52nd Street. The prolonged and meandering narrative, performed without intermission, concerns a brainless buffoon (he thinks a brassiere is a set of pointy twin hats for children) who, as a representative of the proletariat, is catapulted into a position of totally undeserved social prominence by the revolutionary forces at work in the Russia of the 1920’s. He jilts one woman (neither the cause of the jilting nor its political significance is made clear) and marries another, only to be accidentally frozen into a block of ice on his wedding day. Fifty years later, he is defrosted by future scientists and experiences Mayakovsky’s 1929 vision of 1979, in which the world has come to be governed by a global federation of democratic workers’ communes.
Only the right reading materials can prevent forest fires
Returning to consciousness, our hero is horrified to realize he must now be 50 years behind on his union dues. That’s not a bad line, and there are others, as when fire department officials explain to us that, since fires are so often caused by people dozing, the fire department has been forced to compile a list of novelists who have a dangerous tendency to cause people to doze off. There are also a few moments of good physical comedy, as when the bedbug of the title, frozen and defrosted with the hero, wanders off into the audience and has to be retrieved from the shoulders and laps of audience members.
But far too many of the jokes fall flat. One is left in the audience thinking about how much fun Moliere had lampooning the pretensions of the newly rich (and their coaches on etiquette and style), and how much fun Woody Allen had telling the story of a man who unexpectedly wakes up centuries in the future. These are perfectly valid comic opportunities. But Mayakovsky fails to do anything much with them. It may be that his work relies on so many in-jokes that only people who survived the rise of Stalin, or scholars of the period, can appreciate the majority of Mayakovsky’s sallies. Again, Mayakovsky composes the work as a series of disconnected scenes, much in the manner of the Firesign Theater or Monty Python’s Flying Circus, but (as far as one can tell from this translation) without the humor and eloquence of either Firesign Theater or Monty Python.
Then, too, the ensemble of nine actors in this production have clearly been directed to present the work as a boisterous clown show, with far too much monotonous over-the-top shouting. Perri Yaniv, who plays the role of the proletarian hero and defrostee, has the right comic physicality for the role — i.e., he comes off as a weakling and a loser — but fails to summon the necessary variety and energy. (Compare the moment in SLEEPER, when the defrostee, presented in a fine comic performance by Woody Allen, is pretending to be a robot, and is then horrified to see a repairman twisting the other robots’ heads off their shoulders.) This adaptation uses a great deal of rhyming, but the rhymes very often fall into the most boring possible poetic form — the couplet. Certainly, it would have shaken things up a little to use a greater variety of rhyming forms. Not every poem has to be rhymed a, a, b, b, c, c, d, d, etc.
Helpless in the jaws of the allegory
The politics of the piece are also puzzling. Whatever may have been the flaws and compromises of the Leninist workers’ revolution of the 1920s, fiercely satirized in the first two-thirds of the play, Mayakovsky apparently prophesies the Russian Revolution will somehow lead to the global democratic socialist Utopia depicted in Mayakovsky’s vision of 1979. (We learn that, in the 1960s, the human race unanimously decided to declare all human life inviolate. Here we are, a half century later, and, in real life, the globe is nowhere near such a laudable milestone.) One might infer, therefore, that the Russian Revolution must be supposed to have carried within itself at least the seeds of greatness. Yet, when the hero is defrosted, his newly warmed-up body releases an epidemic of bootlicking, as though nothing was being accomplished in the 1920s except for a new birth of toadyism.
Another plague released by the hero’s defrosting causes everyone to use up all their romantic energies, meant to spill out over the course of a lifetime, in a few weeks. Were the Russians being herded into forced labor camps by Stalin an exceptionally randy bunch? If not, what is the point of Mayakovsky’s satire here? I couldn’t tell you, even if I were being interrogated by Beria. If, in fact, the hero’s jilting of his fiancee, and the hero’s marriage to someone else, is an allegorical representation of Lenin’s decision to embark on a free market policy (the New Economic Policy of the 1920’s, or NEP), that provides some political explanation for the events leading up to the hero being put on ice, but it still doesn’t make the allegory either revelatory or entertaining. Though it must be said that Natalia M. Cuevas makes a lovely bride.
THE BEDBUG, by Vladimir Mayakovsky, translated by Guy Daniels, directed by Ashley Wren Collins, with Alena Acker, Ashley-Asiarae, Michael Bradley, Daniel Robert Burns, Brady Cudmore, Natalia M. Cuevas, Sofie Koloc, Erica Lance, and Perry Yaniv. Presented April 6 to May 6, 2018, Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 PM and Sundays at 3 PM, at the Medicine Show Theatre, 549 W. 52nd Street, 3rd floor, New York, NY 10019. www.medicineshowtheatre.org
ROBERT GULACK holds an MFA in Playwriting from the Yale School of Drama, where he studied with Mamet and Kopit. He studied law at Columbia and Yale, earning his JD from Yale Law School. He is the author of numerous plays seen in NYC, including CHURCHILL IN ATHENS, SIX HUSBANDS OF ELIZABETH THE QUEEN, and the award-winning ONE THOUSAND AND ONE. As an actor, he appeared in a recent NYC staged reading of Jeffrey Sweet’s THE ACTION AGAINST SOL SCHUMANN and in the National Black Theatre’s staged reading of THE RIVERBOAT EXPLOIT, a screenplay by RENT’s Fredi Walker-Browne.