In 1926, a college-age Daniil Kharms wrote Elizabeth Bam, a wildly original work of theatrical absurdity starring a cast of characters who strive to break down the dynamics of theater, art, and language into its most basic components.
The work inspired an entire movement titled Theater of the Absurd, which gripped Europe in the 1950s. Even as the grip of Soviet social control tightened its noose around creativity and demanded stark realism from artists, theatermakers like Kharms produced plays of absurdist, surrealist fiction that explored a universe where all meaning in language and action is lost, all communication and logical transition is abandoned, and in a meta, hilarious sense, the audience is made a part of the spectacle, tuned in to the complete chaos taking place onstage.
Make sense? Don’t expect it to. In imaginary beasts’ English revival, Betty Bam (played by Sarah Gazdowicz, Molly Kimmerling, Amy Meyer, Beth Pearson, and Kiki Samko) has committed an unspeakable crime, and is pursued by two bumbling detectives, Ivan Ivanovich (Cameron Cronin) and Pyotr Nikolaevich (William Schuller). That’s the first and only plot point that adheres to any sort of logic. As a robotic announcer interrupts the action to instruct the players to adhere to a different sort of theatrical trope, the scene completely changes, and the audience watches various short skits—some comedic, so melodramatic, some horrific—all entirely absurd and impossible to follow.
The action takes place on a dynamic set that looks directly inspired by fellow Russian artist and designer Aleksander Rodchenko—black and white lines intersect with red, jagged edges of the room giving way to moving parts through which characters may disappear and emerge. The word “RADIX” is painted across the floor, a callback to Kharms’ radical ensemble of the same name. Impressive lighting design manages to transform each scene to mirror the emotion being evoked. In one instance, we’re at a beach enjoying a picnic; in another, mice scurry in the darkness to avoid the eye of a flashlight that signals their impending demise.
Once I gave up trying to understand what was going on in front of me, I was able to more fully enjoy it. It can be a challenge to give yourself up so completely to an experience. Betty Bam! demands complete abandonment from its audience—of reason, of comprehension, of logic, of the definition of what theater is and what it’s supposed to be. Right when you think you’ve got a handle on what’s happening, the performance throws another curve ball. Suddenly, an old woman is vomiting eggs. A homeless person wanders in, asking the audience for spare change. A monstrous being takes shape.
The key to making it through Betty Bam! is reveling in the surreality of the show. There are no right or wrong answers to the question of what is happening, of what it means—in truth, there may not be an answer at all.
In its refusal to be comprehensible, Betty Bam! creates something new and unique. It reminds us all of the meaninglessness of human life, and forces us to open our minds a bit to embrace the infinite parameters of what defines theater. It presents nothing and expects nothing in return. There is no need for analysis here, for the deep probing and internal philosophy that many associate with attending theater. Instead, the show asks you to leave your preconceived notions at the door, and remember not to take everything quite so seriously.
As we left the theater, I turned to the friend I’d brought with me, and apologized for not knowing more about the show in advance, before inviting her. I was still struggling to come to grips with what I had just seen, and wondered aloud how I’d be able to coherently write about it.
“Honestly?” she answered. “After the week I’ve just had, this was just what I needed. I think it mirrors the reality of life completely. Things change in an instant. Everything gets topsy-turvy. There’s no such thing as control. Nothing makes sense.”
And sometimes, all you can do is laugh and shake your head.