GULAG HA HA
nytheatre.com review by Fred Backus
In a series of short scenes, the dynamics of prison society are twisted
and examined in Gulag Ha Ha. Inmates entertain each other with
tall tales, and then turn on each other. Guards terrorize inmates, and
then become inmates and are terrorized in turn, as playwright Jason
Craig and fellow players Jessica Jelliffe and Parnell Klug skillfully
shift from archetype to archetype to the eerie live sound effects and
music of David Malloy.
August 15, 2003
In the spirit of the Open Theatre, these four performers exemplify true collaborative and ensemble work. And perhaps not surprisingly, they rely heavily on the existentialist tradition in the overall aesthetic and philosophy of the piece. In doing so, they do run the risk of presenting something that does not seem altogether new—one almost expects this treatment in a non-linear prison piece dealing with brutality and the human spirit. The script’s existential musings also feel familiar. But there is a lyric beauty to the poetry, and while it may fall short of profound in many moments, there are other moments when it does indeed hit its mark.
Belying its title, there are few moments of out-and-out hilarity in Gulag Ha Ha. One is never completely horrified either, as the piece hovers over emotions in an intellectual and philosophical sphere, making it difficult to fully invest in the inmates’ lust for life as they struggle to maintain their humanity. Instead, the tone of the piece remains surprisingly and perhaps too consistently in a place of lukewarm unease. But it does work this way, for what certainly hits home is the mind-numbing tedium of the world these characters inhabit.
Thankfully, the piece itself doesn’t ever fall into tedium. One reason is the effectively terse design of this production. The simple costumes, the stark use of practical lighting, and the beautifully simple live music and sounds all are accomplished with enough imagination to overcome their repetitiveness and make the piece stylistically engaging. Gulag Ha Ha would be greatly enhanced by more moments of stillness and greater detailed and disciplined physical work, but the cast has a strong physical connection to each other and an excellent sense of spatial awareness, which compliments the lyricism of the script nicely. It is, in fact, the clear dedication of the ensemble to both the material and to each other that ultimately makes Gulag Ha Ha successful.