Why He Fights
Russian playwright uses one soldier’s subjective perspective to mine war’s culture of violence
Published: September 1, 2010
I Am the Machine Gunner
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On a recent weekday actor James Knight was in Baltimore rehearsing the part of a twentysomething Russian gangster reliving the horrors of the World War II Russian front in Yury Klavdiev’s one-man play I Am the Machine Gunner. The next day, he was to return to his hometown of New York to continue a run in Yorktown as Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene, waiting for the British to surrender. The trick, if you’re a freelance actor, is not to confuse the two wars onstage. So he has one more hour to talk about preparing for this production. Then it’s back to the muskets and the powdered wigs, or whatever they wore at Yorktown.
Sitting at a Hampden bar, Knight listens to a waiter recite the beer list. “OK, when in Baltimore,” he mulls, and goes native, ordering a National Bohemian—as does Dave White, his director, who has come with him. Knight appears to be a cheerful guy, which would be a little out of character for the Machine Gunner role itself. For two years, he and White, co-founder of and director with Generous Company, have been workshopping this production (English translation by John Freedman), doing staged readings, and heading to Moscow to drink (and talk) with the playwright.
The collaboration began in June 2008, when White—who had first seen a production of the play at a festival in Bratislava, Slovakia—tapped Knight for the role at WordBRIDGE Playwrights Laboratory, where White serves as artistic director. Since then there have been rehearsal retreats, initial translations, translation revisions, read-throughs, and preliminary performances.
“It’s not the experience I’m used to,” Knight acknowledges. “I’m used to the traditional three weeks of rehearsal and four weeks of performances, and if you’re lucky you get an extension. This is an opportunity to visit and revisit the same thing.”
It’s an experience Russian actors are more likely to have: six months or more of development, endless working and reworking, and, finally, coming up with a play that gets lodged in permanent repertory. Knight thinks it’s not such a bad way of going about it. “It’s been great having the time to let the ideas saturate,” he says.
In one of the play’s memorable moments, the Russian hood’s grandfather (Knight plays both roles) talks about watching Russian infantrymen thrashing around in the burning fuel-filled sea, dragging their German counterparts into the depths. In Russian theater, that counts as the seed of an idea.
Knight admits that it hasn’t always been easy figuring out what Klavdiev is actually talking about. “It’s true,” he says. “Because it’s a Russian play in translation, it’s had its unique challenges.” That, in part, was why they headed to Moscow to “pick Yury Klavdiev’s brain,” Knight says.
They flew over in April 2009 to get the basics. Klavdiev himself is one of Russian theater’s new breed of younger playwrights. Klavdiev, whom this writer met at a conference this year at Towson University, has, intentionally or not, cultivated a persona that is hard to miss in a crowded room of playwrights. He has long dark hair, a waxed mustache, and a missing tooth or two. He is an ex-skinhead from Togliatti, a Russian car-manufacturing city, where, in the post-Soviet era, gangs flourished.
“He was involved in, like, gang activity as a young man, and a lot of hooliganism,” Knight says. “A lot of violence, but I don’t think as much, like, gun violence.” (Guns are harder to come by in Russia.) “His nickname was Strike, which comes from the Russian word ‘to punch’ or ‘to hit someone.’ Then Klavdiev became a crime reporter. So he sort of left the inner circle of violence.”
Then, after about a decade as a disaffected post-Soviet youth, Klavdiev (born in 1975) began churning out plays featuring disaffected post-Soviet youth, many of them filtered through a warped template of American pop culture. Moscow productions have included Bullet Collector, Let’s Go, and A Car is Waiting. The Polar Truth tackles HIV; Martial Arts is a cocaine-fueled journey into the Russian underground as seen by a Russian playwright who cites Quentin Tarantino as a primary influence.
As Knight makes clear, heading to Moscow to figure out where Klavdiev was coming from was more than a formality. And Klavdiev gave him an answer. “He had it down pretty well,” Knight says. “He told me, ‘It’s a young man’s struggle with finding the difference between fighting against what he hates and fighting for what you love.”
“Then we found he’d gotten that from a Robert Rodriguez quote,” White adds, laughing. “Something he read in St. Petersburg and now he’s giving it back to us.”
As White puts it, working on Machine Gunner has been a long, strange trip through the Russian sensibility in the age of globalization. “I mean, there are cinematic images there that are drawn straight from war movies, like Saving Private Ryan or Bridge on the River Quai,” he says. “Movies that Klavdiev grew up watching in the factory town of Togliatti, just later than we did.”
So how is this supposed to be a Russian piece of theater? “Well, he uses these pop culture images and draws from cinema,” Knight says. “But I don’t think for one moment that he forgets why he’s doing it on a stage in a theater.”
And as Knight acknowledges, that can make a difference in contemporary drama, during an era when people aren’t always sure why they’re coming to the theater in the first place. “I’m not saying this is ‘about war,’” Knight says. “I wouldn’t sit here and tell someone who’s just come back from Afghanistan that they’ll learn anything about war if they’ve seen this piece.”
But he says the play has provoked a few discussions, once with someone who had a close relative in the war. “I think that it does, in the end, try to make a horrible sense of it all,” Knight says. “And it’s up to the audience what they take out of it.”
And that may be where the Russian theater kicks in. “It’s an aggressive piece of theater,” Knight shrugs. “It has a solid message behind it.” Knight adds that he’s not trying to replicate what a Russian actor might offer here. “There’s a cultural boundary that we’re not going to be able to step over.”
But there’s an experience that anyone who comes can share: confronting the logic of violence, whether in the Great Patriotic War, among small-time Russian thugs, or in our own lives. “If your brain is there and your heart is open to it, you’ll walk away with something,” Knight says. “That’s certainly the reaction I’ve gotten.”
Six National Bohemians later the check comes. And then Knight heads back to Yorktown, where the British are on the verge of surrender.