What is the point of living? Is a history of people exchanging material commodities all that there is? Can replacing one’s individual identity with fealty to the State really make one whole?
In post-Bolshevik Revolution Russia it sure feels that way, at least, according to “Dying For It,” the latest production from The Artistic Home, written by Moira Buffini and directed by Monica Payne. Adapted from the 1928 satire “The Suicide” by Russian playwright Nikolai Erdman, “Dying For It” tells of patriotic proletariats who are trying to find meaning in an egalitarian, near-secular society where personal value is based on your contribution to the community.
Don’t let the dour threat of a good existential crisis fool you, because there is plenty of mirth and slapstick to accompany the doom and gloom. Set in a dilapidated, multi-storied tenement house, unemployed Semyon (Daniel Shtivelberg) decides that he is going to kill himself. His wife Masha (Kayla Adams) and mother-in-law Serafima (Kathy Scambiatterra) are not empathetic to his boasting of self-murder, mostly because Semyon is having a damn good time planning it. With the help of his neighbor Alexander (Todd Wojcik) and local bar owner Margarita (Kristin Collins), it turns out that dying will be the best thing that Semyon ever did.
Semyon is visited by several figures, each with a different reason for why he should do himself in. Revolutionary leader Aristarkh (John LaFlamboy) gives a rousing speech about how Semyon’s death will make him a martyr for the Revolution; Father Yelpidy (Patrick Thornton) hopes to proselytize Semyon into being a martyr for God; Kiki (Brookelyn Hébert) tries to seduce him into making her the mistress-of-interest to a famous dead man, asking him to be a martyr for her; Viktor (Jared Goudsmit) seeks to secure the rights to write his obituary in his signature poetic style. All four have great plans for Semyon, none of which involve him staying alive.
The outlier is Yegor (Reid Coker), third-floor tenant and committed Communist, whose dedication to carrying the mail earned him an official commendation from the State (which impresses no one). Yegor is dismissed as just another bland Communist worker bee, but his convictions, especially when challenged, makes him a reactionary full of surprises.
This attention leads Semyon to the epiphany that he is more useful dead than alive. An accident following an alcohol-fueled “going away” party for Semyon produces a twist of fate, a near-death experience that takes him to his lowest point and, surviving that, awards him a new lease on life. But what about all of the people counting on him to kill himself for their cause? Semyon must decide between being a useless, living nobody or a famous dead celebrity.
The paradoxical question of individual identity versus being the optimum citizen is main philosophical question that pervades the work. But it never gets too heavy, with plenty of antics to lighten the mood, like plate smashing, adulterous “quick, hide in here” affairs and scenarios of great comic buffoonery—whoever thought that a tuba would solve anything? But before you become too disarmed, remember that this is a play inspired by Russian literature—someone will die.
Like a mix of Dostoevsky, Neil Simon and the Marx Brothers, “Dying For It” balances dark humor, witty dialogue and fast-paced, slapstick action that belies an overarching existential question of what it means to be human. Despite the heavy themes, the theater makers at The Artistic Home prove that Communism can be funny.
“Dying For It” at The Artistic Home, The Den’s Bookspan Theatre, 1331 North Milwaukee, theartistichome.org. Through April 23.