by Mary Hubert
Coming into Zapoi!, I knew very little, save for this little nugget of information: It centers on a town in Russia where all of time is happening at once. I also Googled the word “Zapoi” before attending, and learned that it was old Russian slang for “alcohol abuse resulting in two or more days of continuous drunkenness”. Intriguing¸ I thought. I was all set for a wacky romp full of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, with a bit of a history lesson thrown in to boot.
In the first moments of the piece, this is exactly what I got. The show opens with a narrator (Carol Thompson) standing amidst keeled over townspeople, including a bear holding a violin. After informing us that she’s a dog – and a dog addicted to heroin, at that – she tells us about the town, its rather horrifying landmarks, and the epic bender that has just occurred.
I immediately registered how very clever the playwright, Quinn Armstrong, was. The script was chock-full of witty one-liners, strange commentary on modern life, and fantastical characters (that violin-playing bear, a gay Italian barista, and Anastasia from Tsarist Russia, to name a few). Glancing at my script, I was helpfully made aware that each of these characters were set in a different time, fitting in with the original knowledge provided to me: everything and everyone is smushed together.
As the first act unraveled, I was introduced to characters, scenarios, relationships, all rapid-fire. An evil Soviet femme fatale from the 50s entered the scene, our hero, Kiril, was coerced into wearing an army uniform, there was homoeroticism, intrigue, threats, love, friendship, danger, and, of course, more heroin. And all the while, as I was enjoying the quick writing, the wacky characters, and the hugger-mugger, I kept thinking, I can’t wait until they tie all of this together in Act 2! In Act 2, I bet this will all join together in a perfect spiral of rising action.
Act 1 ends, after an hour and a half. I drink some water and pee. And when I sit down again, I am SO EXCITED for all of the weird, wacky, wonderful disjointed nonsense to swirl into cohesion.
And lo and behold….
More disjointedness. Except this time, everyone was imprisoned. There was coercion, violence, death, destruction, more one-liners – but with none of the endearing lightness that I so enjoyed in the first half. Furthermore, by this time, I was beginning to get a bit frustrated. Yes, I thought, this is all well and good, but what is going on? I rode out the rest, was taken in by the drama, the characters’ plight, and struck once more with the ties the piece made to today’s society. However, I still, at the end of the piece, had no idea who the characters were, where they came from or ended up, why everything in this town was happening at once, and how the plot fit together.
Now, I’m all for non-linear plots. I’m all for dense, hard-to-follow sequences. Movement sections, telling story through song or physicality, leaving things shrouded in mystery – all of this is wonderful, and as an audience member, I prefer it. But not to tie together the central action of the script – this, to me, is a bit tedious. Especially for three hours.
Don’t get me wrong. The acting was phenomenal, the set lovely, the stage combat clever, the script witty and unforgettable. I loved Armstrong and McIntyre’s efforts to tie Soviet Russia, with all of its repression, psychological torture, and hear/speak/see no evil mentality, to modern America. The script was chock-full of ideas, coming out of every life-filled moment on stage. Free will, repression, and the danger of apathy felt so very timely, and I was left questioning today’s world, with all of its governmental influence and subtle coercions.
This was the beauty of the piece, and also its primary problem. There were SO MANY ideas that the plot simply couldn’t get off the ground – it zipped this way and that, like a drunk Russian on a bender, but ultimately couldn’t stop long enough to land. These wonderful ideas need to be tailored, trimmed, groomed just a bit, so that they can be recognized. If this happened, the script would pack a punch hefty enough to knock an audience off its feet.
The bottom line: Annex’s latest piece is delightful, zany, thoughtful, and endearingly sporadic. The script is bouncing off the walls with enthusiasm – it only needs a tether.
Mary Hubert is a performing artist, director, and arts administrator in the Seattle area. When not producing strange performance concoctions with her company, the Horse in Motion, she is wild about watching weird theater, whiskey, writing and weightlifting.