One thing I know about the “There There,” playing at On the Boards through Sunday: It is a tour de force of a verbal marathon.
Other than that, I don’t have a full grip on this bilingual whirlwind of a performance piece, crafted by Kristen Kosmas. And maybe I’m not meant to on first encounter.
Kosmas was a bright light on the Seattle experimental scene in the late 1990s, working with Printer’s Devil Theatre and New City Theater, and crafting some fascinating, feverishly poetic solo plays of her own devising. She’s since been based in New York City, eliciting positive critical attention for her semiabstract, idiosyncratic stage works.
In “There There,” directed by another former Seattle dweller (Printer’s Devil Theatre co-founder Paul Willis) and designed with flair by Peter Ksander, Kosmas delivers a streaming-consciousness monologue drawn mainly from a character in Anton Chekhov’s play “The Three Sisters” — a character who, we are absurdly informed, was meant to be played here by film actor Christopher Walken, who fell off a ladder and is indisposed.
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So it falls to Karen (Kosmas), this actor’s nightmare scenario of tackling a role she hasn’t rehearsed, in a play she hardly knows. The Chekhov figure in this anxious, self-deprecating and self-conscious stand-in is assigned to is Vassily Vasilyevich Solyony, a socially inept, impulsively brutal Russian Army captain. He is enamored of the lovely young Irina, who spurns his interest. The jealous Solyony mocks another of her suitors, his army comrade Baron Tuzenback, and finally challenges him to a pointless duel and kills him.
The events of Chekhov’s play are not clarified in “There There.” Kosmas simply appears in a Czarist army uniform, on a runway-like playing area banked with two blocks of seating, and bordered by filmy white curtains and Futurist artworks on one end and a portrait gallery of Russian generals on the other.
Karen introduces a translator (Larissa Tokmakova), who follows her around trying to keep up a continuous, stereo-effect Russian translation of this breathless, deconstructed, reconstructed, commented-upon and lived-through monologue.
This all may sound dry as chalk, and it can be exasperatingly opaque and self-referential. But Kosmas’ ferocious intensity, the cascading and looping of the language, the quiet underscoring hubbub of Russian, work a weird spell on you. And as Karen’s mask slips, and her own vulnerability and identification with a highly flawed, unsympathetic, 19th-century military man overlap with her private musings about love, death and guilt, Kosmas explores something deeper and more Chekhovian.
It may seem a cop-out, but in this case it would be disingenuous of me to render a verdict on “There There” — except to say that it baffled and annoyed yet also impressed and haunted me. Maybe it’s best to let its creator speak for herself: “I think more like a collage artist or an arranger of things,” says Kosmas. “I think compositionally. “
Misha Berson: email@example.com