James Ryan Gobuty
The theatrical powerhouse, Komunka, is Sky Gilbert’s contribution to this year’s Hamilton Fringe Festival. The play transports the audience to a community boarding house in Russia, with the entire action of the play taking place in the communal dining room, around which the audience is seated. Seating this play in the round is a perfect idea, because it gives the audience the feeling of sitting “around the table” with the cast, a feeling augmented by the constant entrances and exits going on past the audience.
The communal apartment is occupied by the den mother Olga (Peggy Mahon), a former actress and staunch anti-Putinist, who runs the day- to- day operations of the apartment; Stas (Andrew Cromwell), a closeted dentist trying to reconcile his public persona with his private life; Alex (Andrew Pimento), Stas’ lover who wants come out of the closet and leave Russia; Max (Yury Ruzhyev), the clever businessman, always on his phone, who drinks heavily and discourages Stas’ relationship; Sasha (Sean Pratt), the drunken buffoon who represents all of the ignorant alcoholic machismo that Russia is sadly associated with; Masha (Julia Porter), Sasha’s wife who can’t help but think of a life outside of caring for her degenerate husband; and of course, the Man in the Box (Matthew Sarookanian).
This diverse cast of characters coming together around the table creates the perfect environment for exploring not only the diverse issues plaguing Russia —the Sochi Olympics, Ukraine, and gay rights—but also the manifold opinions on each of those issues. Komunka playfully, yet masterfully examines the nuances of both gay and straight relationships in Russia, through the contrast of Stas & Alex, and Sasha & Masha. These characters help demonstrate the difficulties of maintaining a relationship in secret, with the threat of violence and ostracization always present on the one hand, and the pressures of a still endemic patriarchy on young women in Russia on the other. The play also touches on the alcoholism present in Russia, mainly through the drunken antics of Max and Sasha, who demonstrate the confluence of drunkenness, Putinist-nationalism, and homophobia that have settled as an unfortunate trifecta in Russia today. A touch of humour and hope is added to the play through the character of the Man in the Box, who relates how glad he is to have the opportunity to be in Russia, and escape the Ukraine, no matter how dismal his living situation may now be. Man in the Box shows, in contrast to Alex, that the grass is always greener on the other side, and that though Russia is by no means perfect, it is still considered a refuge to people who are even worse off.
Komunka is a fun, thoughtful, and informative play that does great justice to its subject matter; and speaking as a gay Russian, it is much appreciated.
Komunka played as part of the Hamilton Fringe Festival at The Workers Arts and Heritage Centre. The show has completed its run at the festival.