IMAGINE A SESAME STREET CIRCUS: demented Muppets in Crayola-Vision scampering around the arena babbling at '78 r.p.m., accompanied by Muzak and Kodacolor slides of Star Market. This absurd vision closely approximates the experience of seeing the Loeb's production of Vladimir Mayakovsky's The Bedbug.
The Bedbug, a satire of Party bureaycracy, describes the ordeal of a petty official who is frozen in an accident on his wedding day in 1929 and is defrosted in the Socialist world-state in 1979. This plot is barely intelligible in Peter Sellar's frenzied production, however. Mayakovsky's satire works mostly through verse, parody and puns--Sellars in effect obliterates all verbal content in frantic pursuit of visual pyrotechnics. Admittedly, The Bedbug demands to be staged as spectacle, but Mayakovsky also valued his words. Sellars' production reduces them to high-speed spurts of incomprehensibility.
Sellars chose a thrust, semi-arena stage for this production, bare except for white gauze strips concealing the huge number of props trotted out for each scene. While this staging does evoke the circus-like atmosphere Mayakovsky wrote into the play, Sellars does not overcome the audibility problems inherent in theater in the round. As the actors careen about the stage, whipping out their lines, each section of the audience gets to hear a few words, but no one hears the entire sentence. While this mayhem may be intended to suggest the decline of human sensitivity and individualism, it succeeds only in depicting the decline of good diction.
The play opens with the vulgar Party official Skripkin accompanying his mother-in-law shopping for his upcoming wedding. The first act centers on Skripkin's break with his fellow workers to marry into the petty bourgeoisie. The act is, without exception, unintelligible. The fact that the actors must play different parts in each scene, with no apparent logical transition, just adds to the confusion.
Sellars comes into his own in the second act. Futuristic fantasy is more suited to his playland theatrical style. His actors, done up in round bug suits with mops on their heads, race around the stage with shopping carts. The supermarket motif is reinforced in an incessant procession of slides of dog food, toilet paper, peas, and Burry cookies, and in the soothing strains of Muzaked "Hey Jude," "Those Were The Days," and "Lara's Theme." It's tempting to settle back and watch the ads parade by--it may be monotonous but there is a certain sense to it--but one is constantly distracted by noise from below. One of the features of modern society that Sellars reads into Mayakovsky's vision seems to be a faster pace of life. As the play progresses, he raises decibel levels and frequencies, accelerates speech to screeching chatter and winds his actors up to near-epilepsy. And then suddenly--catanoia: the most tedious final fifteen minutes you'll ever want to see.
The only character not affected by Sellars' mania is Skripkin, the defrosted man. Alone in his cell, an object of curiosity and disgust to the neo-socialist zombies, Skripkin is a solitary figure of humanity in a commercialized, sanitized, and bureaucratized world. Chris Clemenson as Skripkin has the only real character role in the entire production--the other actors are indistinguishable screaming mummies. Led to center stage by the head zombie to be ogled at by the socialist multitudes and to utter a few 'human-like' sounds, Clemenson's speech is a touching, evocative moment in a production otherwise devoid of feeling. He appeals to the audience:
Citizens! My people! My own people! Dear ones! How did you get here? So many of you! When did they unfreeze you? Why am I alone in the cage? Dear ones, my people! Come in with me! Why am I suffering? Citizens!
Perhaps we are so taken with Skripkin's speech because we are in a similar position. Assaulted by Sellars' sound and fury, we feel as confused, trapped and embarrassed as Skripkin in his cage. Why does Peter Sellars have so much contempt for his audience that he goes so far out of his way to make things inaccessible?