MORTAL COILS : SBCC offers a speedy runthrough of a rare Russian play

Nova Ropp as Cleopatra and James Stenger as Senya in SBCC Theatre Arts Department's production of "The Suicide" by Nikolai Erdman. RICK MOKLER PHOTO
Nova Ropp as Cleopatra and James Stenger as Senya in SBCC Theatre Arts Department’s production of “The Suicide” by Nikolai Erdman.
RICK MOKLER PHOTO

If there were theater awards for making one’s own professional life difficult, SBCC’s Katie Laris should get some sort of nomination for putting on Nikolai Erdman’s 1928 farce “The Suicide.” When her first choice of a play became unavailable in January, did she look at her schedule and think “let’s fill the small Interim Theater with 18 actors instead, all playing characters with long Russian names?” One wonders.

“The Suicide” is not well-known, even among fans of theater. Banned in its lifetime, resurrected in the 1960s and performed occasionally ever since, Erdman’s play courses the woes of post-revolutionary Russia and a pointed critique of groupthink. It also overflows with a Brueghel-esque cast of characters and/or caricatures. It’s a history piece, no doubt. Is there enough between the lines to sustain a night at the theater?

Well, one could start with economics. Senya (James Stenger) has been unemployed for a year and feels himself a burden to his wife Maria (Jesi Vasquez) and mother-in-law Serafina (Jess Hager). When he wanders off one night in search of a snack, the two women assume he’s gone off to commit suicide. When he returns some time later he finds that not only do his family and neighbors believe in his self-annihilating thoughts, they are now counting on it. Alexander, the soldier (Luke Jorgan Metherell) wants him to die and blame the state. An intellectual (John Trethart) turns up, wanting him to die for aesthetics. And a vamp, Cleopatra (Nova Ropp) wants him to die for love.

There will be more people to come and more requests put upon the pliable and naïve Senya, who starts to warm up to this idea of offing himself … but only in theory.

By the midpoint, the fateful time has been decided — noon the following day. There will be a final party, a funeral and a body. But not everything will be as it seems.

“The Suicide” works up several heads of steam in a few impressive scenes, one being the “last supper” of Senya, with its full cast, layers of dialogue coming from every corner of the stage, and Ms. Laris dials between each of the grouped actors like she’s working an audio mixer. She even throws in a guitarist and waiters to add to the complicated blocking. A later scene back at Senya’s apartment squeezes an amazing amount of characters, all bickering and fighting, within an enclosed space. These are all difficult scenes to pull off, and Laris has managed to do so with an all-student cast.

Unlike previous SBCC Theater Group productions, this interim period during the Garvin’s remodel has broken with the traditional mix of local pros and students. Laris has capable undergrads at her disposal, led by James Stegner.

Though older than the rest of the cast and wearing salt-and-pepper hair that isn’t a make-up trick, Mr. Stegner takes on Senya with gusto and good humor. If anything, he plays Senya too nice, too realistic, too desirous of our sympathies as an audience. He is Everyman, but Erdman has set a journey for him from ignorance to enlightenment. Mr. Stegner’s Senya seems enlightened from curtain rise.

Other students stand out in a crowded bill. Mr. Metherell’s soldier is upright and duplicitious, while Nova Ropp’s Cleopatra is all sultry swaying, looking like Theda Bara’s younger sister. She gets many of the laughs in a evening that deserves more than it gets.

Why is this? Much of “The Suicide” performance on Friday evening was rushed. When the pompous ramblings of much of Senya’s sycophants come tumbling out, that’s fine. But in its bits of physical business, in its domestic scenes, the speed renders what depth the play has — not a lot, being a farce — very shallow indeed. Everybody’s eyes seem to be on the clock.

“The Suicide” nearly gets a lot of things right, and provides a chance for a great many students to camp it up in period costume. The play’s dour ending may suggest a lesson of learning to love life, but also says to us that fame is fleeting, no matter how nefarious the way we achieve it.

IF YOU GO
‘THE SUICIDE’

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday
Where: Santa Barbara City College’s Interim Theater, West Campus, 800 block of Cliff Drive
Cost: $15 general, $12 seniors, $6 students
Information: (805) 965-5935

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