Few outside Russia – except for the occasional foreign academic – are familiar with the Soviet poet Mayakovsky, a firey, somewhat eccentric Bolshevik radical who committed suicide in 1930, still a young man, after being ignored and even imprisoned briefly for his occasional critical and/or satirical statements about Russian politics. Let’s just conclude suicide, even if the bullet in Mayakovsky gun wasn’t from the same pistol as the bullet which killed him – and even if the suicide note was actually written days before his death – and even if the policeman in charge of the investigation mysteriously died ten days later. Yet, in 1935, Stalin declared him “…the most talented poet of our Soviet epoch.”
Few inside or outside Russia require facts about Stalin’s tumultuous life, with the possible exception of his marital forays. Stalin’s first wife Ekaterina died in 1917, just before the Russian revolution – so little is known about her passing. Stalin, already in his 40’s, married the impressionable 18-year-old Nadya in 1918. Apparently, connubial bliss ensued – that is, until Nadya began to question her husband’s decisions and plans of action, especially a Stalin-engineered famine which led to thousands of Russian deaths and Stalin’s propensity to murder anyone who got in his way, with his Communist purges making history. In November 1932, Nadya, like Mayakovsky, committed suicide by shooting herself in the heart. Any questions about her death never saw the light of day.
With these historical facts in mind, playwright and director Murray Mednick has woven a fascinating tapestry of fictionalized facts or factualized fictions, depending on audience opinion. The powerful (and some say power-mad) Stalin (Maury Sterling) and Nadya (Casey McKinnon) are the premiere couple of the Soviet Union. That is, until Nadya begins to express her displeasure with her husband’s actions and chooses to stay in her room rather than hob-nob with friends – “…but we have no friends.”
The other principal couple in the piece is the egotistical, wild-eyed Mayakovsky (Daniel Dorr) and his married lover Lilya (Laura Liguori) – with her husband Osip (Andy Hirsch), who just happens to be Mayakovsky’s best friend, thrown in for good measure. In fact, it is Lilya and Osip who write the fated letter to Stalin which resulted in Mayakovsky’s posthumous return to literary fame.
MAYAKOVSKY AND STALIN is compelling history offered in the perceptive Mednick style. Unfortunately, however, the nexus between the two men is weak and often feels like the author grasping at straws. In addition, the play is presented more like a staged reading than a classic play. Lined up along the back of the stage are chairs which offer respite to the various actors while they wait for their turn to come forward with their lines. True, they are in costumes designed by Shon LeBlanc. But the stage is empty but for chairs. Nick Santiago’s projections and George McWilliams’ graphic design along the back wall offer glimpses into the lives of the principals. John Zalewski’s sound and original music and Matt Richter’s lighting also alleviate the sense of the static. Finally, of course, the talented cast keeps the action rolling. MAYAKOVSKY AND STALIN would certainly appeal to history buffs, as well as to people who find the foibles of the rich, famous, and infamous gripping. Author Mednick’s words are also captivating and lyrical. This beguiling slice of life will keep the audience’s attention and interest – and may even trigger some discussion after the curtain comes down.
MAYAKOVSKY AND STALIN runs through August 19, 2018, with performances at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and at 3 p.m. on Sundays. The Lounge Theatre is located at 6210 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood, CA 90038. Tickets are $25. For information and reservations, call 323-960-4443 or go online.