2009 marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Futurism, the Italian avant-garde movement dedicated to breaking brutally away from the past and into a high-speed mechanical and industrial future. 2010 makes it 85 years since Sergei Eisenstein, the visionary Russian film director, released The Battleship Potemkin, a work that revolutionized film by the use of montage and served as fantastic propaganda for the newly installed Bolshevik state. It is not necessary to know things like this while sitting in the audience for Theatre Novi Most’s production of M2: Mayakovsky & Marinetti, now at the Open Eye Figure Theatre, but it does help to inform a clear vision through the furious and flickering layers of text and action on stage.
M2, as director Lisa Channer points out at the beginning of the play, is a fiction, but it is a historical fiction. Vladimir Mayakovsky (Vladimir Rovinsky, who also wrote and co-directed the play) was a Russian Bolshevik, born in 1893 who became a poet whilst doing hard time in Moscow’s Butyrki Prison. Filippo T. Marinetti (Stephen Pearce) was born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1876 and was well-educated and worked in literary circles before publishing the “Manifeste de Futurisme” in Paris’ Le Figaro newspaper on February 20th, 1909. The two men only met once, in 1914, and there is no record of that meeting, so the scenario of M2, with Mayakovsky and Marinetti bouncing ideas off eachother, acting as provocateurs and fighting over a woman (Lilya Brik, played lithely and sensually by Julianna Drajko) is an imaginary conceit. These were two important artistic figures of the early 20th century though, and they were both caught up in the major political movements of their time, Bolshevism in Russia and Fascism in Italy, and so their stories are well worth exploring at a time when we more quietly and subtly are engaged in warfare and technological advancement.
What is most impressive about M2 is how Theatre Novi Most captures the kinetic and chaotic time period with full blooded, impeccably constructed performances. Rovinsky and Pearce form a spinning dynamo, pushing eachother louder, faster and more avant-garde in English, Russian and French, as poetry snippets and selections from Eisenstein flicker around them. They embody the deadly earnest faith in the machine future, that everything is better that is faster, stronger and more precise. They push their every masculine instinct to the fore- desire for newness, war, lust all comes up with a heaving sense of potential and seduction. With a cast rounded out by Billy Mullaney and Sasha Gibbs, two talented U of M undergrads and exceptional sound design by Daniel Dukich that heightens the explosiveness of every scene, M2’s ambitiously kinetic conceit may not always by conceptually clear, but it is compelling to see.
“Charge of the Lancers”, Umberto Boccioni 1882-1992
As the delirious actions of the first half of the play come crashing into the realities of the First World War and the Futurist beliefs, the ahistorical flurry of activity and imaginary construct is generally abandoned in favor of a more direct telling of Mayakovsky’s increasingly depressed life as a poet apparatchik in the new Bolshevik regime. In 1915 Marinetti published a book of poems titled “War Is The Only Hygiene Of The World”, and the program notes remark of the Futurists desire for warfare and “scorn for women” that, “Politically, it’s hard to reconcile them with our notions of art and poetry.” This is true, that decline of the avant-garde into functionary roles and acceptance of totalitarian regimes is a cautionary tale, told by Mayakosky, even if earlier he and Marinetti were a seductive vision. Both writers were dismissed by their leaders, with a particularly caustic quote from Lenin appearing on the screen calling Mayakovsky only fit for eccentrics, but the truly disturbing end is how complicit both men were in their own fate, and how the blinkered view of the future can easily be dominated.
M2 is an impressive piece of work from the new company, Theatre Novi Most, even if with all the action happening, it could be textually impenetrable at times. It sets up expectations for their next project, Old Story, a telling of the Gilgamesh myth at The Southern Theatre September 24-October 3. With many of the same performers as well as local luminaries like Barbara Berlovitz and Vanessa Voskuil on stage and a text by Kira Obolensky, if they can maintain the dynamism and focus of M2, Old Story should rock the ancient world.
Last performances Saturday 5/22/2010 at 8pm and Sunday 5/23/2010 at 2pm at Open Eye Figure Theater.