Saturday, August 13, 2011

Fringe 2011 Reviews: Tyumen, Then

Adam Underwood’s Tyumen, Then, (Too-MAIN, if you were wondering) an extremely black comedy, is a study in effective contrasts. It features one of the most amoral, self-preserving characters you will ever meet, who is driven to the brink of insanity by even the thought of selflessness. It’s grotesque and chilling. But then, it also has an ice-skating-obsessed Vladimir Lenin rising from his coffin in a “Kiss the Cook” apron, so you be the judge.

Two Russian soldiers stand in a boxcar, guarding what nobody will tell them but what they suspect is the body of Lenin, being spirited from Russia in order to avoid possible desecration by the Nazis. One, Dimitri (Lyon Smith) is an annoying but completely guileless individual, particularly for a soldier during WWII – you wonder if it’s his first day on the job, marvel at his ability to keep up constant inane chatter, but eventually melt for his continued naïve optimism. He is a kind of winningly annoying Dr. Pangloss, who, though met with constant pain, continues to believe in the best of all possible worlds. His compatriot, Ivan (Kevin MacDonald) is his polar opposite and is having none of his friendly overtures. When the boxcar screeches to a halt with no hint of whether or not it will ever continue its journey, survival mode kicks in for Ivan and Dimitri is a willing dupe.

Meanwhile, we wonder, is it Lenin, on ice, or Lenin On Ice? The charismatically loony Adam Lazarus is clearly having the time of his life playing Lenin post-mortem with increasingly whimsical props. At first he can only be seen by Dimitri, as he complains of memory-inflicted head pain, asks to be taken skating and spouts prophecy, but he intrudes more and more into the world as things go off the rails (metaphorically, that is).

The play is a (sickening) riot. With its seemingly absurd and light tone, the eventual violence comes as both an inevitability and a shock. However, once the horror threshold is breached, though one hopes for the best, one knows there is no turning back and all bets are off. This certainly makes things more exciting; the show manages to create enormous suspense in its willingness to irrevocably harm its characters. The dialogue (at times, monologue) is in turn hilarious and interminable, a sort of combination between Questions and Who’s On First? Though this seemingly-endless back-and-forth interaction and the stopped boxcar initially give the play the impression of a Russian train-based version of Godot, things change: the characters do move – and cut, and strangle, and skate.



  1. This review is great and explains why you liked it. I have a differing viewpoint on it to provide a discussion point.

    Overall, Tyumen has great characters, rich with period detail, and is well-acted, but since it's a "extremely black comedy" with "one of the most amoral, self-preserving characters you will ever meet" - the subject of tastes enter into the conversation. I found the tale rather cold and unfunny - and I love black comedy (Lieutenant of Inishmore is one of my favourite plays). My comedian friend/show-partner hated it more than I did. Both of us were grossed out at the hand-eating and felt it wasn't necessary for differing reasons. It maybe because I love black comedy, but hate horror (gratious violence) and this play is closer to horror.

    While you thought the "dialogue (at times, monologue) is in turn hilarious and interminable" - I thought the monologues were rambling and failed to provide any drama. The exchanges worked better. The question is - what the point of them? To provide (a little) background of the pair? I would have preferred Ivan to be a little more threatening early on so we (who identify with the annoying but more likeable Dimitri) can sense Dimitri was in danger and should flee. "Nothing" happened until the shocking/unexpected/random hand-eating situation. I want my stories to gently telepath the events to come (with the audience thinking - "aha! that had to happen!") and not feel randomly stitched together. But that's probably tastes too.

    As is, the story could have been told in pantomime. If you love "Waiting for Godot" and black comedy you'll probably love this play. A similar Fringe play - Raton Laveur - had a more traditional narrative structure with traditional increasingly dramatic dialogue exchanges - making it easier to digest. It was dark, bloody, and funny. On a positive note, I loved the absurdist Lenin. Should have been integral part of his own play... maybe a Cyrano-like love story with Dimitri seeking advice from a dead Lenin.

  2. Thanks for the comment! I love responses and dialogue here. :) In my experience of seeing the play, I thought the build-up to violence was more obvious. I felt menace from Ivan right away, though I wasn’t sure how it would resolve itself. As far as the dialogue/monologues go, I found them initially frustrating but once I got into the mindset that it was Godot-type verbal volleying without necessarily advancing the plot, I relaxed and found them more amusing. To be honest, that kind of monologue/dialogue isn’t really my thing and it did take looking at it in a different light to make it more effective.

    I don’t like horror either and was pretty sad at the finger-eating, but as I was thinking that Lenin was going to stop the amputation at the last minute I found the shock that “anything can now happen” gave the play a bit of a charge. I admit that Ivan’s “win” left me with mixed emotions and wasn’t fully emotionally satisfying to me because his character was so repellant, but I thought it was a interesting, unsettled feeling to have at the end even if I didn’t “like” it per se.

    Agreed that Zombie Lenin needs his own play, or maybe a talk show.

    I think our tastes might be more similar than you think on this show. I was left with an overall positive impression due to the professionalism of the experience and the Lenin humour pushed it over the top (it also helped that my friend who I was with loved it), but also enjoyed Raton Laveur more. Raton was definitely in my top 5 shows, maybe even my top 3.

  3. I also had "mixed emotions" about the ending, but I've read/seen enough anti-hero tales to accept disturbing ends. Yeah, they violate our personal world views, but it's how the writer views the world. I guess I was unsatisfied because many questions were raised and not answered. Maybe that was the playwright's point? Life ebbs and flows with no answers. Still leaves me wanting more.

    I tend to examine the underlying narrative and try to avoid production quality issues - I understand reviewers give plays "more stars" with higher production values (as you say "professionalism of the experience") but I'm a playwright who likes to study the underlying text. Not all great tales need to have a strong narrative. A Chorus Line is one of my favourite musicals and it has an extremely weak plot. A Chorus Line draws us in with compelling/emotional monologues + songs rich with detail. Great stories evoke emotion, not provoke them. Tyumen was trying to provoke me and I refused. An anti-hero can be repellent and compelling at the same time. Ivan was not the latter to me, but he might have been to you.

    My other show-friend loved Raton Laveur. I liked it with one reservation - that it was a one (emotional) note play. Funny with a slight tender side. To have people walk out and scream to their friends "YOU HAVE TO SEE THIS PLAY!!!" it needs a stronger "sad" moment and a few additional happy (non-joke) moments. It felt like a sketch for sections of it. Did you see Remember Maggy?

  4. When I say "professionalism" I mean less that there were high production values and more that I thought the acting and timing were of high quality; the players all seemed to be on the same page. I'm not saying that I only felt unresolved at the end because the anti-hero won either. It's more that I wasn't sure what we were supposed to take from that narratively, other than "shit happens." I have a feeling that we agree more than you think and I just might not be communicating as well as I want to.

    I actually found Raton Laveur to be quite sad. It was also very funny, but for me the sadness of his situation came through in a way that was occasionally gut-wrenching. I suppose it was because my mind really ran with the horror of both having to experience the death of a loved one and the pain of having caused it. I was pleased by how the play, for me, managed to walk the really fine line between making his character disturbed and sympathetic. I agree that the show could be fleshed out more, but for me I honestly felt, as you nicely put it, that it evoked rather than provoked emotion.

  5. Oh, and no, unfortunately I didn't get the chance to see Remember Maggy.