The rambunctious intelligence of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s THE BEDBUG is matched by that of the nine actors at the Medicine Show Theatre who play what were originally some 90 parts spread over a 50-year leap in time. Being able to see this early Soviet-era Futurist play is astounding enough, that it holds the stage with such clarity and theatrical punch the more so. It is equal parts dizzy making entertainment and social critique, variety show and polemic, attacking the senses while stimulating thought.
It was part of the Futurist project to captivate audiences with sensory bombardment, and The Bedbug opens to that end with a sort of mercantile carnival, a department store bazaar in the time of Lenin’s NEP (New Economic Policy), which backslid to the market for long enough, it was hoped, to transition to a workable socialism. Barkers assault the ears with their come-ons, selling everything from herring to fur-lined brassieres, actual products that, presented in this way, feel surreal or even Dada, sensibilities that overlapped in small and large ways with Futurism.
The senses continue to be activated, even as the commercial funhouse is moved on from, to a wedding celebration and attempted suicide, and eventually to a dystopian future, with, among other stimulants, a loud gunshot, trumpet blasts, and, not least, the sight of the main character relieving an itch (a sensation second only to coughing in its power of suggestion). And simply the show’s general craziness, the doffing and donning of so many personae by so few, the dancing, the live music (composed, mostly, by the players), the endless vodka toasts, is felt as something physical.
For all of which, there is still a story. Perri Yaniv, the only actor (I think) who plays just one part, plays Prisypkin, a credentialed worker who uses his status for material gain, a straightforward enough way of raising questions about what the NEP reveals about human nature. The mad course of his doings leads – no need to say how – to his being frozen in ice and resuscitated 50 years on in a perfected order that has finally gotten the bugs out of the utopian project.
The new world is dominated by rationalism and technology, which means no to such irrationalities as beauty or love, the latter being a disease, long stamped out. Prisypkin, of course, proceeds to re-infect the world and so must be controlled. Resurrected as a specimen of the worker, or ideal human, he is redefined as an animal to be displayed. The bedbug he brought with him is better received, as a miraculously restored extinct species.
Written in 1929, THE BEDBUG anticipated Huxley’s Brave New World by three years, and it is hard not to associate the two. Each present a society misshaped by a rigidly scientific mind that, getting so much right, misjudges the reducibility of the human. The perennial tensions, between idealism and possibility, nature and utopia, individual and group, happiness and rationality, comfort and fulfilment, lie unresolved beneath the surface. They share a suspicion of technological utopianism, a theme of interest, to say the least, today, a dystopian future that technology is not in service of (as in Orwell’s 1984) but the cause of.
The actors who pull this off, and Ashley Wren Collins who directed them, cannot be praised enough; nor can the costumes, lighting and sets by Janet Mervin, Richard Keyser, and Jorge S. Rojas. Alena Acker, Ashley-Siarae, Michael Bradley, Dabiel Robert Burns, Brady Cudmore, Natalia M. Cuevas, Sofie Koloc, and Erica Lance are Yaniv’s comrades in acting. To single out any seems a little off, they are so good collectively. But strong in the memory are Koloc delivering an exceptionally animated and well-characterized speech to the dystopian masses; Cuevas’s powerful presence in her several roles; Bradley’s comic flair, which is practically vaudevillian; Ashley-Siarae’s great versatility. And Yaniv’s Prisypkin, about whom there is something almost biological, a performance of pure organic matter, never far from the animal.
THE BEDBUG runs through May 6 at the Medicine Show Theatre. For tickets and information, click here. Photo credit: Al Foote III.