Sunday, June 21, 2009

Planet Connections: Child of Hungry Times

Though not widely translated in the West, Ludmila Petrushevskaya is one of Russia’s most respected contemporary authors. Not coincidently, she was also one of the most censored writers of the Soviet era. She gave voice to Russian working women, specifically mothers, struggling under an oppressive system. Five such characters from Petrushevskaya’s literary oeuvre tell their stories in Bridget Bailey’s solo show Child of Hungry Times, currently running as part of the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity.

Bailey brings to life all five desperate mothers, as well as a narrator, whose forced zeal for the great Soviet experiment slowly dissolves over the course of the show. Her transitions are quite clever, often segueing from one character to another amid their vodka fueled laughter. She tells a number of Yakov Smirnov style Communist jokes, deliberately butchering the punchlines for comedic effect. However, the experiences of the five women which form the heart of the show are mostly serious, even tragic, in tone.

Hunger is indeed a recurring motif in their stories, as is the need to sacrifice for the sake of their children. In perhaps the most heartrending storyline, one woman in the early stages of cancer makes an unimaginable choice to secure her son’s future. Of course, her diagnosis is assumed to be a death sentence, given the dim view of Soviet medicine presented throughout Child.

Child is cleverly staged, with potatoes placed on every seat, and a set complete with stockpiles of toilet paper effectively evoking the cramped quarters of Soviet era flats. Bailey nicely differentiates each of Petrushevskaya’s women, giving their testimony an emotional directness that is difficult to shake off. While the evolution of the narrator from bubbling babushka to tortured (literally) truth-teller feels a bit stagey, it certainly reflects the realities that produced Child’s source material.

Oddly, Child’s program carries a churlish note from the director which might alienate the target audience for a show based on Petrushevskaya’s writings. Despite his protestations to the contrary, Child is far timelier now, as Putin continues to consolidate power in a neo-Soviet Russia and Iran cracks down on spontaneous protests in the wake of apparent election fraud, than when it was first produced during George W. Bush’s administration.

Sometimes funny, often tragic, Child presents an intimate look at the lives of ordinary women in times of extreme scarcity. Bailey deserves credit for her compelling adaptation of Petrushevskaya’s work, which ought to be more readily available in translation. It will be staged again today (6/21) and Saturday (6/27) as part of Planet Connections, with its proceeds donated to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.