“Archipelago,” LeeAnne Hill Adams’ intriguing new play premiering at Brigham Young University, is theater of obligation. “We have a duty to the dead,” the actors intone stoically. “We must tell their story. ”
Well, a play written out of perceived responsibility is liable to seem over-earnest and crusade-y, and “Archipelago” suffers a bit from that, often, despite occasional bursts of humor, coming off as morbidly self-serious. But Adams — whose outstanding first work “Yellow China Bell” was produced at BYU last year — is a good enough playwright not to be ensnared by such pitfalls. If it’s sometimes too much like the thesis paper of an impassionated liberal-arts student, it’s even more frequently the insightful, poetic creation of a bright and sensitive mind.
Based on survivor accounts, the play is set in the 1930s in Kolyma, one of Stalin’s gulags in remote Russia. Millions died in the chain of labor camps — what Alexander Solzhenitsyn called “The Gulag Archipelago” — and Kolyma was among the worst. Stalin sent “counter-revolutionaries” to the camps, where men and women alike did back-breaking work all day in arctic weather, most of them eventually succumbing to cold, hunger or sickness, though many were simply executed, too.
In order to preserve a sense of humanity, some prisoners produce a play — Nikolai Gogol’s “The Inspector General” — encouraged by knowing that, due to Stalin’s fear of educated, well-read people, their captive audience will be one of the most intelligent congregations in the entire Soviet Union.
But that is merely the through line. Plot is not important; telling the story of the dead — our duty, after all — is. The play is rife with doleful monologues recounting the horrors of the camps, interspersed with surreal boardroom scenes of Stalin and his buffoonish cronies plotting against counter-revolutionaries and each other. (Stalin himself is present but never speaks, standing to one side in a neutral mask that makes him look a good deal like Michael Myers in the “Halloween” films. It’s creepy.)
The play’s structure allows for much theatricality and experimentation, and director Rodger Sorensen is more than happy to explore. He is particularly fond of the text’s Brechtian elements, constantly reminding the audience they’re watching a play, sometimes through conventional means like having no backstage space and letting characters talk to the audience, and sometimes through more unusual methods like introducing multi-media into the mix. We see a pro-Stalin propaganda commercial, and some scenes are broadcast on monitors by surveillance cameras set above the stage. At one point, through Terry Gilliam-style animation, Marx and Lenin engage in a heated ideological debate. The Clinton/Dole debates on “60 Minutes” should be so entertaining.
Whether Sorensen’s innovations add to Adams’ text is open for debate. I will begin the debate by suggesting they do not. “Archipelago” is a play about stories, and the multi-media elements point out that stories can be told in different ways — but so what? This isn’t “Rashomon,” where there are conflicting accounts and different points of view. Why show the stories from different angles literally when that’s not being done figuratively? The gimmicks are cool, and maybe that’s enough, but maybe they also distract from the play’s basic, more soulful intentions.
The 13 cast members play a few dozen characters; as is frequently the case, they accomplish this with varying degrees of success, depending on their experience and talent level. Diane Rane has the lead as Nina Hagen-Torn, a poet who was sent to the gulags twice. Rane is perfect in the role, giving it the right spin of dignity and hope — the central image of what the play is about.
She is joined by Joni H. Clausen as a fellow prisoner badly treated by the guards, and by Logan Miller, who plays an imprisoned actor. Both give compelling, stand-out performances.
Kreg Peeler’s sound design, Jenni Nelson’s sets and Michael G. Handley’s lighting are all used to great effect, suggesting that, no matter how good a cast may be, an uncommon theatrical experience like this one makes use of every resource available.
I interviewed LeeAnne Hill Adams before seeing the show and found her very charming and funny. She said after writing two dreary plays set in Russia, she's trying her hand at a romantic comedy screenplay -- and that she has to keep fighting the urge to put a death in it. I asked her to please write a screenplay in which Meg Ryan is hit by a bus, and she said she would think about it.