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New Russian Drama

“Nothing let’s you be yourself like water. You want to die? Go for a swim.”
Strike aka punk-rocker-turned-playwright Yuri Klavdiev carries his name for good reason. He knows how to hit nerves. His solo piece I am the Machine Gunner about a young Russian soldier in a current war—presented at the Martin E. Segal Center last Wednesday in a strong performance by James Knight—was inspired by Strike’s grandfather’s memories of World War II. “Writing is shamanism,” Strike says and describes how he immersed himself in his grandfather’s experiences when writing his “unending song of destruction” about the terror of killing, of being one with the weapon. In the most cutting moment of the monologue the machine gunner connects with his grandfather: “Grandfather, how did you do it for four years, if a minute and a half is like this?” I am the Machine Gunner is one of the most impressive dramatic pieces I have seen in a long time, a play that tears off the skin, exposes the hideously human only to reveal underneath it a glimpse of beauty. David M. White of Generous Company, who discovered the play at a festival in Slovakia organized by John Freedman of the Moscow Times, directed the performance that is now on tour through the U.S. So, if you happen to be in Baltimore, Chicago, or Carlsbad, CA these days, check out this dramatic treat by a radical voice.
Strike like his playwright companion Vyacheslav Durnenkov is a product of tough town Togliatti, known as the Russian Detroit, home of the infamous car Lada (plus eight gas plants!), where people even give visiting stars like David Bowie a run for their money. At least that’s what Klavdiev and Durnenkov tell us, and I’m inclined to believe. These young writers embrace the roughness of their city at the margins of… of what actually?; spit out their souls in what is called the drama of pain, a decisive opposition to the drama of prosperity that dominated post-Soviet Russia for a long time. Klavdiev and the Durnenkov brothers (Mikhail was not present) may receive credit for creating the Togliatti phenomenon, yet New Russian Drama grows in cities allover the country, far from Moscow and the forced mirth of the repertory theatres. Speak truth, break through walls, New Russian Drama is a vehicle for artists who dare –.
Last December, the Segal Center had dedicated an evening to Olga Mukhina, another important playwright of New Russian Drama and a resident of out-of-the-way Yekaterinburg, but this evening was an entirely male affair. No wonder that the absence of female artists made women a major topic in the q&a with the artists and John Freedman, Oleg Loevsky of the Real Theater Festival, and Philip Arnoult of the Center for International Theatre Development (CITD), who was instrumental in bringing Klavdiev and Durnenkov to the U.S. The men on the panel all agreed that female playwrights are crucial for the current theatre scene, yet they appeared challenged to answer questions about a specific female style—is there even one? Only Strike made it is easy for the curious American audience: Of course women write differently than men. Because they are different! Take soccer, for example. When men watch soccer, they care about the goals. When women watch soccer, they care about seeing attractive men run around on the field. Well, there we have it, thankfully the world cup is just around the corner.
By the way, some things get lost in translation. The TV show “Shkola” that Durnenkov and Klavdiev write, is not a reality show as I thought. It is reality-based, shot in a real school and manages to offend just the same: with sex and drugs and dropping out. That’s how they write over there. Right on!

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