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By John Quinn
Frannie Shepherd-Bates, artistic director of Magenta Giraffe Theatre, introduced the works of local playwright Franco Vitella when her company hosted its 2010 Staged Reading Festival. His zany vignettes were so well received she looked forward to mounting a full production. The result is “Burn the Red Banner: Or, Let the Rebels Have Their Fun,” 80 minutes of non-stop mayhem now playing in the shabby-chic confines of The Abreact Performance Space.
It’s obvious from the start that rebellion is afoot. The black walls are crudely painted with Socialist slogans (“Revolution is the locomotive of history.” “Communism is the riddle of history solved.”). There’s a poster of Lenin – Vladimir, not John. Long before we see them, we hear the surly cast and their cantankerous stage manager exchanging barbs in atrocious Russian accents more reminiscent of Boris Badenov than Boris Yeltsin. (Google them, children, if you must.) The cast includes Steve Xander Carson, Jonathan Davidson, Keith Kalinowski and Kirsten Knisely. Their task master and stage manager, David Woitulewicz, sits in the lighting booth, barking orders and announcing the scenes.
And what absurd scenes they are! A barrage of sketches, some only seconds long, is delivered with all the force of a machine gun attack. Some are right on target, others are a little off the mark. Some are so out there you’re left in a “what-the-heck-just-happened?” daze. There are some interwoven storylines; the easiest to follow are the trials and tribulations of a fellow whose name I’ll render here as “Leonid Komorov, soft-spoken part-time banker.” In sum, “Burn the Red Banner” is tremendously entertaining.
Franco Vitella has an agenda here, and it’s a pip. The works of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov are sterling examples of the 19th century theatrical aesthetic known as “the well-made play.” Rebellion against that convention sparked Theatre of the Absurd, and, to a lesser extent, the political dramas of Bertolt Brecht. So now here comes “Burn the Red Banner,” a thoroughly absurdist romp, set in the times when the Soviet regime gave way to Perestroika, yet having Anton Chekhov as a recurring character. It’s a sharply drawn parallel between political and artistic revolt. Mix in Brecht’s principle of “alienation,” never letting the audience forget that they’re watching a play, and we find that Marshall McLuhan was right yet again: “The medium is the message.” If my terminology confuses you, well, you remember what Google is for.
Who knew USSR really stood for “Unbridled, Silly, Subversive Riot?”
‘Burn the Red Banner: Or, Let the Rebels Have Their Fun’
The Abreact Performance Space, 1301 W. Lafayette #113, Detroit. Friday-Saturday through Feb. 25, plus Sunday, Feb. 19. By donation. 313-454-1542. http://www.theabreact.com