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My first trip to Boston this weekend led me to the imaginary beasts’ production of Daniil Karms’s Betty Bam!, a 70-minute experience at the Plaza Black Box in the Boston Center for the Arts. The show is currently running until May 2.
Do I recommend it? Absolutely. I am, however, left with a lingering question, which only hit me as the play came to a close and ultimately would not dissuade me from recommending it to a prospective audience member. Read on!
An excellent dramaturgical note by Matthew McMahan is essential reading before experiencing Betty Bam!, particularly if Russian avant-garde theater isn’t your usual bag. To sum up, the original Elizaveta Bam by Daniil Kharms is a collaborative spectacle created by “Radix," a group that conducted radical theatrical experiments in an increasingly Soviet Russia in 1927. This young group, Kharms in particular, used words, circus tricks, sounds and textures to sidestep the “mechanized life” of the conventional and mundane – a fitting rebellion just a short time before the tyrant Stalin came to power.
The work of anti-Soviet artists has been marginalized and largely forgotten by today’s audiences; such was the efficiency of this restrictive, repressive regime. Despite increasing censorship, these passionate artists fought their corrupt government through art – a point which provides necessary context to this often-puzzling work of theater.
The world of Betty Bam! resembles a basement blown out by explosives, featuring a series of ever-shifting doors and cabinets with which the actors can gleefully play. Spiral target symbols appear on every surface, hinting at the deadly mark on Betty Bam’s back. A black and white set of squares labeled RADIX (a tribute to the creators) frames the floor like an inverted chess board. A single electric bulb hangs from the ceiling, casting harsh shadows across space. The stage is set for a game of cat and mouse.
I don’t want to reveal too much - a piece with so many quirks, treats and surprises is best experienced live. Five haunting young women, dressed exactly alike, all embody the mysterious Betty Bam, who is accused of an unknown crime (possibly a murder) and thus hunted by two bumbling yet dangerous inspectors.
The physical comedy is well-staged, as is a neat piece of puppetry. At times, the movement could have been crisper and cleaner, though the sheer force and energy it clearly takes to perform this acrobatic piece excuses a few imperfections.
Actors Cameron Cronin and William Schuller are a neat duo and bring a smart energy to their initially unsympathetic characters. This likable cast generates a warmth to material that can seem stiff and rigid, for a piece that was once a defiant act of rebellion in a bygone era. The ensemble commands the text, even bypasses some of its inscrutability, with clownish antics that highlight the emotional journey of Betty and her aggressors as the chase ensues.
Though I wish I could give credit to these talented actresses individually, they were dressed completely alike, making it impossible to offer individual kudos. Suffice to say, these actresses have done their homework, emulating the silent film actresses of the 1920s with large eyes and expressive lips. As an ensemble, they move in tandem with total ease.
The question that hit me as the well-deserved bows were taking place: This is an important piece of theatrical history, unique and intellectual, daring and dangerous – but what does it have to offer us now?
That’s a question I’m not confident was answered tonight. This piece was executed efficiently and with great pizzazz, though I still question its relevance and timeliness to today’s America.
With the recent tragedy in Paris regarding Charlie Hebdo, I could see the case for a play that broke ground and fought the establishment by refusing to be silenced. However, this was not a connection I felt the production made to contemporary society, or indeed could even have made, given the clear absurdist necessities and lack of plot of the source material.
Betty Bam! is a play is worth seeing, if just for the sheer theatrical force that is the imaginary beasts’s vision. I would love to catch more of their work, particularly if the material is more than a well-executed history piece.
Mood, style and movement are the winners in Betty Bam! – a well-crafted snippet of theater that does not overstay its welcome and leaves you with an image of flickering silent film and the taste of coy rebellion.