REVIEW: BURAN THEATRE’S POSHLOST SAUDADES! (PS!)

Adam R. Burnett of Buran Theatre, one of my very favorite theater artists, was once interviewed by Adam Szymkowicz and pointed out that he tends to favor female characters in his writing because “there is no mystery in a man, nothing lyrical or beautiful, devastating or dramatic.”

In his lively new work Poshlost Saudades! (PS!), which was presented for one night only on Monday, June 27 as part of Ars Nova’s Ant Fest, Mr. Burnett continues this line of thought in what amounts to a hilarious variety show on the topics of memory and growing older. There is frequent dancing and even a singing cat. It’s actually kind of like the Andrew Lloyd Webber Cats, except everybody is on molly and there’s an Ace Ventura style talking butt joke.

Poshlost comes shockingly close to a traditional narrative when stacked next to the more nonlinear works in the Buran catalogue, like House of Fitzcarraldo, Magic Bullets and Mammoth. The loose story follows Mona, a dance instructor, who is closing down her dance studio and retiring. Tonight is her retirement party, which is being filmed by a videographer named Roderick (Matthew Bovee) for posterity. Attendees include her interminably tipsy half-sister Lucia (Kate Schroeder), her coked-up half-brother Alexander (frequent Buran collaborator Jud Knudsen) in from Hollywood, her son Cesar (Daniel Nelson) straight from prison, her angsty daughter Eliza (Yuki Kawahisa), her kids’ former pediatrician and hanger-on Dr. Bernard (Robery Honeywell), and her beloved cat Nana (Knudsen again). The evening is also presided over by the specter of Mona’s late husband, Randolph, who sits off to the side eating cake.

The title Poshlost Saudades! (PS!), according to the program, mashes up a Russian term “poshlost,” coined by Vladimir Nabokov to describe insultingly dumb art, and the Portuguese word “saudades,” which means “a longing for what was and can never be.” This collision between formal critique and wistful exploration, and the resulting dissonance, is a hallmark of Burnett and Buran’s work. And while the narrative here is decidedly more linear than previous outings, the conceit that the evening is being filmed has allowed Burnett to still carve the play up into somewhat disassociated segments, when one or two characters are interviewed or singing for the camera.

Burnett wrote and directed the piece with Sarah Matusek associate directing and choreographing the dance numbers. The staging is by turns both informal, with actors taking a seat in a row of chairs along the back when they are not in a scene, and sharply stylized during a few kinetic dance numbers set to Maria Dessena and Casey Mraz’s buoyant music.

The “mystery” I mentioned earlier is found mostly in Mona. As played by the terrific Donna Jewell, the matriarch of this gang of misanthropes reflects more than she takes part in the silliness. Surely she does sometimes, like when Alexander starts divvying out the drugs, but mostly she seems poised in kind of hyper self-aware state. She sees her flailing adult children, for instance, with perfect clarity.

 Remember what it used to be like you were children? I really like that: when I was younger and you were all little. That was a better time than what we have now.  That was what was likeable – I like that. I like that a lot. That time. I did like that a lot. Yeah, I like that.

Repetition, in this case the word “like” in the passage above, is one of Mr. Burnett’s signature flourishes in his writing. It takes a relatively simple feeling and then beats it into a pulpy abstraction. By the end of it we are not sure what “like” even means in this context, just that it is an imperfect formal structure wrapped around some misty concept that Mona is trying express.

Mona also reminisces about her late husband, who died from eating too much sugar, and how she found it adorable that he thought Skittles were fruit. Later, from his corner of the stage, Randolph says, “Some body that loved me could have corrected that.” Randolph himself even has a touch of feminine mystery. In an interesting choice, he is played by Tina Shepard, who enters at the beginning of the show singing about how yesteryear is better than yesterday. Then, she asks us to close our eyes and listen to a piece of music. When we open them, she has transformed into Randolph via slicking her hair back and putting on a Santa Claus beard.

The yesteryear song goes like this:

I don’t remember yesterday

Like I remember yesteryear

The memories, the melodies

The folks in hats, all so clear

Today is but a bore,

I’d rather die for sure.

I’d rather live in yesteryear.

I’d rather live in yesteryear.

It’s a sad and fatalistic ditty to be sure, zeroing in on the current of melancholy that hums beneath the at times downright juvenile gags. In addition to the aforementioned Ace Ventura joke, there is also a Billy Madison reference.

Burnett often has a lot of fun undercutting the deeper material in the play. Nana the cat, played with a saunter by the always entertaining Knudsen, later sings this reprise of the yesteryear song:

I don’t remember yesterday

Like I remember yesteryear

The meowmories, the meowlodies

The cats in furs, silver & gold.

Meeeoooow!!!

Today is but a bore,

I’d rather meow for sure.

I’d rather live in yesteryear.

I’d rather live in yesteryear.

The play ends in a tangle of writhing bodies on the floor, the results of a couple different surprise hookups and a last-minute police raid, and Mona deciding she maybe doesn’t want to retire after all.

Maybe she’s longing for the good ole days of yesteryear. Maybe she just wants to dance.

Maybe it’s a mystery.

Or a meow-stery.

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Visit BuranTheatre.com for more info.

 

 

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