The performance portion of the International Association of Theatre Critics 24th Congress, “Theatre and Humanism in Today’s World of Violence” got off to a fascinating start with Marius Kurkinski’s adaptation of a trio of Nikolai Haitov short stories (“Quake,” “Fear,” and—with a compelling link not only by title but also George Bernard Shaw’s fierce interest in the plight of the downtrodden—“You Never Can Tell”).
Kurkinski’s everyman portrayal, with obvious homage to Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp (replete with a cane for the final tale), is at once warm, witty and worldly. The appreciative audience—deciding on several occasions when they thought the current narrative had run its course—reveled in the sexual antics of horny goats and their kids (“Quake” told the metaphorical history of what can befall any town if its stable of goat studs dwindles to one tired Billy), the terror of spending the night under the hospitality of an Imam whose mosque is purposely frequented by the Badger of the Baskervilles and the gruesome delight of rationalization: today’s savage attacks by animals, highwaymen and thugs are tomorrow’s blessings in disguise (e.g., the lame foot owing to nearly becoming a meal for a grizzled bear prevents a one-way trip to the Balkan War).
Cheers too for the few musical interventions not least of which was Mozart’s “Turkish March”: further globalization of the fabled composer’s craft.
One-person shows—particularly if the words are also crafted by the one who speaks them—are special tests for any actor. There’s no one to fall back on or take a cue from. Directing oneself removes another filter of disinterested advice yet, on the other side of the artistic ledger, disagreements are reduced to a minimum. To his credit, Kurkiniski has very few moments of self-indulgence where, for example, his lingering stares might have been whittled down by a director anxious to keep up the pace.
With, necessarily, an overabundance of tell and precious little show on the stark set, the actor’s body language must provide visual reinforcement to Haitov’s knowing insights and wry observations of common folk. Happily, this is where Kurkiniski excels: whether humping like, well, a beast, cowering in the face of things-that-go-bump-in-the-night, or doing the rich walk (aptly demonstrating “What’s it like to hold ₤500?”), his deceptively simple gestures, grimaces and full-body shakes (fulfilling the title on several occasions) drew the audience into his/Haitov’s world with obvious love and affection on both sides of the footlights.
His character’s humanism was never in doubt—so much so that the copious calamities battered, bruised and befuddled him and his ken, the crowd roared its approval, delighted to realize that their own personal disasters could, in fact and in time, were to be embraced rather than avoided. In the last narrative, the—now—old man speaks of having two fairies at his side: one makes trouble; one provides help. And so (on the day of his deployment), taking revenge on a stingy father-in-law by destroying his bee hives and being thrown into jail for his crime, our hero—literally—dodges the bullet of a trip to the Great War: none of his regiment returns. He’s only alive because of a debilitating humiliation. Take the crap and live long, or in the words of the master storyteller, “How can you tell what will be for better or worse?”—a mantra to survive by indeed. JWR