#1 Cockroaches

Theatre Etcetera Theatre @ The Oxford Arms

Cockroaches is an ambitious staging of Mikhail Bulkagov's play Flight (Бег), the story of a band of refugees fleeing the violent turmoils of the Russian Civil War. A story of dignity and humanity. Cockroaches is a deeply personal enterprise for director Anastasiya Sosis, who translated the play from the Russian original.

Cockroaches happens on the road. We travel from war zones in south of Russia, to heat-oppressed Constantinople, to thriving Paris and back again. Along the way, we encounter a whole gallery of characters, each one more wretched than the other.

We witness how swiftly fortunes can change, and how ordinary people are worn down by war and exile. Cockroaches is a contrasting play about fall from status and grace, but also a kind of a celebration of dignity. It is a tale of castaways in penniless misery far from home, but also an acknowledgement of the forces of love and hope and survival.

Indeed the ensemble play provides ample opportunity for punchy drama, but unfortunately this is for the most part wasted in this production. The leading pair, young philosopher Sergey Golubkov and abandoned lady Serafima Korzukhina, both come across unlikeable. Golubkov is naïve, emasculated and weak, and Mrs. Korzukhina frail, staid and reserved. Neither arouses great sympathy.

The two are not portrayed confidently here, with both characters desperately lacking emotion and warmth. The two protagonists visit depths of despair and heights of hope and happiness, but the acting fails to breathe much life into the characters at any point. Anna Danshina looks the part brilliantly, but her Serafima comes across more whiny and irritating than polished, gracefully dejected and distressed. Golubkov's supposedly grand shifts feel empty and barely register emotionally.

Easily the most interesting character in the play is found in General Roman Khludov. Khludov undergoes a radical transformation from a monstrous villain tormented by battle stress and ghosts, into a repentant, guilty, yet centred man ready to face the music. We are treated to moments of fine emotion in Khludov's almost Shakespearean monologues. Acting in the juicy role is confident, with lines delivered carefully and with inspired physicality.

Unfortunately Khludov alone cannot carry the story. The other general, the boisterous Grigori Charnota, proves uncharismatic and unconvincing. There is nothing real behind his fits and frustration. The rest of the supporting roles are at best forgettable, slipping frequently into ham territory.

On the opening night I attended, we were constantly only moments away from an unintentional farce. There was a wildly swinging cardboard Orthodox icon; a hopelessly short, ever-slipping white shawl (that poetically found rest in the middle of the stage); and a telephone prop of such vintage that it broke in half in the middle of a call!

This is a most peculiar mood for a story as sober as this one, of people forced to scatter and flee from a revolution of the other colour with little more than dignity as luggage. A timely reminder of the lives and challenges of those caught up in not dissimilar conflicts in the present day.

The dire situations in Cockroaches are conducive for trying to see the brighter side of things, the small joys, but the intentional humour in the production is terribly paced and awkwardly misses the mark. Similarly the more serious exchanges on morals and virtue often proved similarly punchless.

In the middle of the play, we have the cockroach race scene. Whatever allegory is the objective of this incomprehensible enactment, is quickly lost in the sound and fury of the scene.

Like cockroaches, the characters scatter persecuted, but no sign of their persecution is ever made evident, beyond winning use of off-stage audio. Still, the urgency of their condition is justified only by the characters' sometimes heavy-handed exposition. Minimal staging, budget costuming and unsophisticated visuals force the attention on the acting, which, pretty much across the board, doesn't hold up favourably.

The ending appears more or less on time, but in a rather too neat and tidy manner. The production overall is too busy almost all of the time, giving the action a non-immersive, distinctly performative feel. There is no time for glances, pauses, subtle behaviours or much physicality — no time for nonverbal acting. All in all, the play rages on like a tuneless musical, barely stopping for breath in-between numbers, criss-crossing Europe in the blink of an eye.

Suitcases and other luggage as the sole furniture of the play is a great idea, but in their emptiness, they carry no weight and so are hard to take for the real things. Much like Cockroaches itself.