Review: A Little Too Much of the Same in Dying for It by the Artistic Home

Although Semyon, played by Daniel Shtivelberg, the main character of Moira Buffini’s play Dying For It, lives in post-revolutionary Russia, his struggles are pointedly timeless and engender a theatergoer’s sympathy. He’s unemployed. He’s cursed by nosy neighbors. He’s anxious about his health. He hates his mother-in-law. Moreover, he wants to die.

The Artistic Home presents Dying For It, directed by Monica Payne, at The Den Theater. Based on The Suicide, a 1928 Soviet Union satire proscribed by Stalin’s regime, Dying For It follows Semyon’s mission to find purpose in his impoverished life, or else end it all. It’s a melodramatic dark comedy that, with rare but impactful exceptions, stays on the goofy side. While the show gets pulled down by overacting, the tight script, impressive stage design, and raucous energy make it worth your time.

Daniel Shtivelberg and the cast of The Artistic Home’s production of Dying For It. Photo by Joe Mazza/Brave Lux.

At the beginning Semyon wakes his wife Masha, played by Kayla Adams, to ask if they still have black pudding left over from dinner. Masha replies, “I can’t believe you’ve done this.” And so jumpstarts the comedic irony of the play, which treats serious and minor problems alike with the same despairing and distinctly Russian attitude. The tone lives somewhere among Chekhov and Monty Python, Dostoevsky and The Simpsons. “You’ve killed me with that black pudding, Semyon,” she says. “I’m not joking; you’ve destroyed me.”

Semyon, desperate, tries to find meaning as a tuba player. But, in one of the play’s highlight comedic moments, he quickly abandons the instrument. The distraught proletarian decides instead to kill himself. Hilarity ensues.

Dying For It’s action takes place entirely in Semyon and Masha’s slum house. Special praise goes to scenic designer Kevin Hagan who makes the most of what could be a bland setting.

The foreground is a realistically decrepit tenement: bed, writing table, assorted detritus. But the background is several stacked rows of jagged, rusty-looking railings and doors. The platforms converge as triangles at the stage’s center, creating the illusion of depth. Lighting designer Mark Bracken Jr. accentuates the crusty atmosphere with creative naturalistic choices, sometimes dimly illuminating the stage with oil lamps, sometimes lighting only from behind doors.

In this dingy space a cast of wacky characters tumble in and out like vaudeville players. For when Alexander, played by Todd Wojcik, Semyon’s womanizing neighbor, learns Semyon plans to shoot himself, he exploits the tragedy by selling an audience with the doomed man to a motley crew of Russian society. Each paying acquaintance has the same request: that Semyon feature their cause in his suicide note.

John LaFlamboy and Daniel Shtivelberg in The Artistic Home’s production of Dying For It. Photo by Joe Mazza/Brave Lux.

“But you must shoot yourself not just as an individual,” pleads Aristarkh, played by John Laflamboy, a representative of the intelligentsia who urges Semyon to blame his suicide on the government. “You must shoot yourself as a responsible member of the society.”

There’s also Kiki (Brookelyn Hébert), a lovesick femme fatale who beseeches Semyon to “kill yourself for the one woman who appreciates the beauty of your soul,” i.e., Kiki. And Viktor, a self-important writer, played by Jared Goudsmit, who doesn’t have a cause but just wants to write about Semyon once he’s dead.

The success of the show’s second act hinges on the strange ways the bizarrely obsessive personalities push for Semyon’s suicide. There are plenty of laughs, though the actors’ overzealous approaches betray the play’s greatest weakness. Oftentimes, in their attempts to prove their absurdity, the actors confuse humor with volume.

The encounters between Semyon and his fans don’t progress so much as boil. The parasitic opportunists shake Semyon, grab his face, and, more than anything, yell. There’s a lot of yelling.

Kayla Adams, Reid Coker and Todd Wojcik in The Artistic Home’s production of Dying For It. Photo by Joe Mazza/Brave Lux.

“Tell them how you turned your back on God,” yells Father Yelpidy, a drunken priest played by Patrick Thornton. In a performance meant to satirize the benedictions of a raving religious figure, he may be the worst offender of this loudness issue. “Say how I, Father Yelpidy, begged you to hear His word and save yourself.”

Tonal variety is the key to nuanced performances, especially in comedies. Different volumes and tones make characters dynamic, interesting. In Dying For It some of the performers unfortunately made the same decision over and over again, to get progressively more boisterous. Overtime this becomes excessive and flat.

Kathy Scambiatterra, Daniel Shtivelberg, Brookelyn Hébert and Patrick Thornton with (back, l to r) Carolyn Waldee and Mary Spencer in The Artistic Home’s production of Dying For It. Photo by Joe Mazza/Brave Lux

This isn’t true of everyone. Reid Coker’s standout performance as Yegor, the communist neighbor, is understated and sullen. Hébert’s portrayal of Kiki samples different flavors of insanity. She yells, sure, but also whimpers, needles, and cavorts. Unfortunately, these exceptions make the rule. And seeing a few actors vary their pitch reminds the viewer of what the others lack. This reviewer implores the actors to look for variety. Play with their approaches, try the unexpected, play the opposite.

Still, the play is fun, at times even hilarious. The cast as a whole has a sense for comedic timing. They maintain the energy beat after beat through a script that, though it drags at the end, was inventive and original.

The Artistic Home will perform Dying For It at The Den’s Bookspan Theatre,1331 N. Milwaukee Ave., through April 23. Runtime is 135 minutes including an intermission. Tickets are $35 or $20 for students and students and available at 773-697-3830.

Adam Kaz
Adam Kaz