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The Heart of Murray Mednick’s “Mayakovsky and Stalin”

By Ernest Kearney  —  When the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky was found on April 14, 1930—a suicide at the age of 36—his handwritten note read “To all of you. I die, but don’t blame anyone for it, and please do not gossip. The deceased disliked that sort of thing terribly. Mother, sisters, comrades, forgive me — this is not a good method (I do not recommend it to others), but there is no other way out for me. Lily – love me. Comrade Government, my family consists of Lily Brik, mama, my sisters, and Veronika Vitoldovna Polonskaya. If you can provide a decent life for them, thank you. Give the poem I started to the Briks. They’ll sort them out.”

His funeral, held three days later attracted a crowd of 150,000, second only to Vladimir Lenin’s funeral in 1924.

But his suicide is not at the core of Murray Mednick’s play Mayakovsky and Stalin (on stage at The Lounge Theatre in Hollywood, thru August 19, 2018).  That distinction is given to the suicide of Nadezhda Sergeevna Alliluyeva, known in life and Mednick’s play as Nadya (Casey McKinnon), Stalin’s second wife.

The staging, directed by Mednick, is a whirlblast of passions – Mayakovsky (Daniel Dorr) for the purity of poetic line, that of Mayakovsky’s various lovers Lilya Brik (Laura Liguori), her sister Elsa (Alexis Sterling) and the Chorus (Max Faugno) who, we are told in the program notes, is Mednick‘s vehicle to supply a running historical commentary on the events we see unfolding before us.

Daniel Dorr (Mayakovsky), Laura Liguori (Lilya), Photo by Ed Krieger

The two calmest voices in this piece are those of two husbands:

One is Osip’s (Andy Hirsch), the husband of Lilya who accepts the affair his wife is having with Mayakovsky by burying it under the clattering palpitations of banal rationalizations of the “new soviet man.”

The other is Stalin’s (Maury Sterling), whose dialogue is cold, clinical and chilling.

Mednick has gathered on stage a superb cast who commit themselves fully to an exceedingly demanding script and manage to master it:

Dorr captures the myopic obsession of the poet, “a futurist without a future,” who sees everything through the prism of his poetry,

Liguori skillfully seizes the soul of one for whom revolution finds its expression in libidinousness,

Faugno suffers as the history he witnesses comes to hint at a history that looms before us.

 

So much passion on stage, all rough-grained by history and all destined to shatter on the rock of Stalin; for Mednick’s Stalin though a man without passion, is a man of iron-hard intent.

Stalin, unlike the other characters on Mednick’s stage, doesn’t want to improve his world, or change it.  He wants to dominate.

As Stalin, Sterling is the demonic underestimation of historical inevitability.  And standing center stage for most of his scenes, staring out on to nothing with steely unseeing eyes, dissecting events and those about him in a detached voice, Sterling personifies the gateway above which reads “Abandon All Hope” and the abyss we have been so often warned will peer back into us.

The leader personifies the certitude of the creed and the defiance and grandeur of power. He articulates and justifies the resentment damned up in the souls of the frustrated. He kindles the vision of a breath-taking future so as to justify the sacrifice of a transitory present.

All through Mednick’s play and afterward, I found the words of Eric Hoffer reverberating in my thoughts.

Those in possession of absolute power can not only prophesy and make their prophecies come true, but they can also lie and make their lies come true.

This is certainly true of Mednick’s Stalin who has decided that he is the truth of the revolution.

There were times in the performance when Chorus seemed to fumble his eras, as if uncertain which age he was in, and then Mednick’s tale of Stalin took on the appearance of a pentimento to our present-day history.

And still I heard the resonance of Hoffer —

No matter how noble the objectives of a government, if it blurs decency and kindness, cheapens human life, and breeds ill will and suspicion — it is an evil government.

The play begins and ends with the suicide of Nadya which McKinnon plays as a final act of a desperate Cassandra, the true daughter of the revolution who has gazed into the face of its murderer.

Mednick is a writer of immense stature.  He was the founder of the Padua Hills Playwright Workshop and its artistic director from 1978 to 1995, an organization that is still vibrant with originality and talent as was obvious in the recent Hollywood Fringe Festival in which Jack Benny (A Ménage en Train) took top honors in TheTVolution.com awards.  And back in 1985 heading out to Paramount Ranch for Coyote Cycle, Mednick’s reframing of Native American mythos with Darrell Larson, Priscilla Cohen, Norbert Weisser and Christine Avila remains the most magnificent six hours worth of theatrical arts I’ve ever experienced.

Mayakovsky and Stalin, however, is cyclical in structure, and I’m not sure to what purpose.  We keep returning to the same topics, yet in the spiral there is a disconnect, as if we are moving farther from the core rather than closer.  It’s like stumbling on a coiled diamondback, but one who for all its rattling never seems to strike.

Whether a commentary on past events or a forewarning of things to come Mednick has nevertheless mounted a solidly-staged, well-crafted production, one that is as impressive as it is challenging.

But then perhaps Mednick offers us the key to understanding this work with the line,

Nothing comes of the whole thing.  Except history.

 

♦    ♦     ♦

 

 World premiere of

Mayakovsky and Stalin

Produced by Racquel Lehrman, Theatre Planners

Presented by Padua Playwrights

On Stage At

The Lounge Theatre

6201 Santa Monica Blvd.

Hollywood, CA 90038

(just east of Vine)

When:

Now thru August 19, 2018

 

For Schedule, Tickets and Information:

(323) 960-4443

or

www.plays411.com/stalin


♦♦♦

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Written by

An award-winning L.A. playwright and rabble-rouser of note who has hoisted glasses with Orson Welles, been arrested on three continents and once beat up Charlie Manson. His first play, "Among the Vipers" was a semi-finalist in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition and was featured in the Carnegie-Mellon Showcase of New Plays. It was produced at the NPT Theater in Ashland, Oregon and Los Angeles’ celebrated Odyssey Ensemble Theatre. His following play, “The Little Boy Who Loved Monsters” was produced at The Hollywood Actors Theater, where he earned praise from the Los Angeles Times for his “…inordinately creative writing.” The play went on to numerous other productions including Berlin’s The Black Theatre under the direction of Rainer Fassbinder who wrote in his program notes of Kearney, “He is a skilled playwright, but more importantly he is a dangerous one.” Ernest Kearney has worked as literary manager or as dramaturge for among others The Hudson Theater Guild, Nova Diem and the Odyssey Ensemble Theatre, where he still serves on the play selection committee. He has been the recipient of two Dramalogue Awards and a finalist or semi-finalist, three times, in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition. His work has been performed by Michael Dunn, Sandra Tsing Loh, Jack Colvin and Billy Bob Thornton, and to date, either as playwright or director, he has upwards of a hundred and thirty productions under his belt, including a few at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater as puppeteer. After a wild and misspent youth, which lasted well into middle age, Kearney has settled down and is focusing on his writing, as well as living happily ever after with his lovely wife Marlene. Ernest’s stage reviews and social essays can be found at TheTVolution.com and workingauthor.com. Follow him on Facebook.

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