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Steven Culp in "Slavs!"

Thinking About the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness

March 8 - March 27, 1994

World premiered at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, KY




Presented by the 18th Humana Festival of New American Plays



Playwright by Tony Kushner
Directed by Lisa Peterson



Yegor Tremens Rodent - Steven Culp
Vassily Vorovilich Smukov - Michael Kevin
Serge Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov - Ray Fry
Ippolite Ippopolitovich Popolitipov - Fred Major
Bonfila Bezhukhovna Bonch-Bruevich - Mary Schultz
Mrs. Shastlivyi Domik - Barbara eda-Young
Vodya Domik - Annie-Laurie Audenaert



Playwright Tony Kushner's follow-up to the classic Angels in America, Slavs! Thinking about the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness is set in Russia during the last years of the Soviet empire. Along the way, we encounter leaping Bolsheviks, drunken lesbians, wandering children and even a Babushka or two.

A fantastical / political / historical exploration of life in the Soviet Union in the earliest dawn of Perestroika. In scenes ranging from the inner chambers of the Politburo to a secret chamber beneath Lenin's Tomb to a medical facility near a radioactive disposal site in Siberia, Slavs! considers the difficulty, the failure and the abiding importance of Socialism and of ongoing efforts towards building collective societies and a more just world. (c) actorstheatre.org

Slavs!, first staged at the Actors Theatre of Louisville in 1994, responds to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the betrayal of another utopian ideal seemingly careless of the fate of those it purported to serve. The dominant metaphoris that of radiation, which has warped the bodies and destroy the lives of the next generation. Nor is this simply a lament over the past, as the apparatchiks of the old order are replaced by nationalists dedicated to a new repressive order which works by exclusion. The poverty and injustice once to be banished by communism continue to dominate the world. Capitalism, the other master story, equally fails to find a place for the poor and disadvantaged, the pursuit of money carrying a virus no less virulent than that of a once triumphant and now historically irrelevant communism.

The Russians in Tony Kushner's play "Slavs! Thinking About the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness," love to argue. They love to argue almost as much as the American Louis Ironson did in Kushner's last play, "Angels in America." Louis couldn't have coffee without discussing the ontological meaning of freedom. Louis, however, lived in a world hurtling toward the millennium. The ancient Bolsheviks in "Slavs!" inhabit a world that has come to its own overly analyzed conclusion. In fact, by the end of the first act, two corpses, dead from too much talking, lie on the stage.

The play shares a character with "Angels"--Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov--the world's oldest living Bolshevik. In both plays, Aleksii recalls with almost religious fervor the great theory of his youth, socialism in all its blinding purity. We, he tells us, are but the pygmy children of a gigantic race. In "Slavs!," Aleksii's proclamation is personified as an 8-year-old mute girl, poisoned and dying from the nuclear waste of Siberia.

The four short acts of "Slavs!" are like a series of sketches--dark, funny, often vaudevillian, that take place in the period from Gorbachev's rise in 1985 until 1992. Throughout, the debating apparatchiks confront the mess they have made. Because Kushner is an intense and poetical writer, a great shaper of words, their speeches are fascinating, compulsively listenable, even though they are nothing more than paralysis in language. The real life, the real work, is done by the country's women, starting with the old babushkas who continuously sweep the snow from the steps of the Kremlin ("A Sisyphean task," notes a comrade. "And what's more, sir, it's completely pointless!" a babushka cheerfully answers).

After a first act of speechifying, Kushner makes the political personal. Popolitipov falls in love with a beautiful young woman Katherina. He gets her a guard job at an unusual Soviet archive. There, with the brains of the country's former leaders floating in jars behind them, he drunkenly woos her. Katherina's rejection of Popolitipov borders on burlesque, so merciless is she to every vulnerability he shows her. Even in his self-pitying, corrupted state, Popolitipov knows he is to blame for this woman's contempt. "We have not made a world that makes people kind," he muses.

But that is not the worst of it. Rodent, the lowliest and least intelligent of the bureaucrats, is sent as a kind of good-will ambassador to Siberia, a place where there is no goodwill and no possibility for it. There, Rodent is comically unprepared to meet the little mute girl and her ineffably angry mother.

Despite the characteristic excess of Kushner in his subtitle for the play, "Slavs!" is a far less expansive work than "Angels in America." In the latter, an angel told us the great work had begun. In "Slavs!," the great work was done long ago, and it was done badly. But we kid ourselves at our own peril if we believe that Kushner depicts a world that has nothing to do with our own. The Soviet Union is not the only country that began, after all, with a beautiful theory.

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