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Yury Klavdiev: Atom-smashing Playwright


Atom-Smashing Playwright:

The Work of Yury Klavdiev from a U.S. Perspective

By David M. White

Badass, n. A tough, aggressive, intimidating or uncompromising person.     

Oxford English Dictionary

The poetry of violence, the violence of words, the poetry of vulgarity, the vulgarity of violence, when entering the theatrical worlds of Yury Klavdiev, one should expect to find these very qualities resonating from the stage.  Crashing together the known elements to create the unknown, Klavdiev’s atom-smashing works make high demands upon artists and audiences alike, but the investment of imagination pays off with great rewards, as these are works that show us different sides of life and different sides of ourselves.  The easy comparison comes from the film world in the guise of Quentin Tarantino whose layers of brutality are bisected by ribbons of poetry, but Klavdiev’s work for the stage puts audiences face to face with situations and characters who fill the room with their capacity for the unexpected. Each of his works is an exercise in badass; tough, aggressive, intimidating and uncompromising plays that take audiences and artists on unexpected journeys, never pull punches, and rarely give you time to blink.

My first encounter with Yury Klavdiev’s work was in May of 2008.  I was attending the Nova Drama Festival in Bratislava, Slovakia, with Philip Arnoult and the Center for International Theatre Development.  John Freedman, critic for the Moscow Times, was curating the “Focus: Moscow” portion of the Festival and Irina Keruchenko’s Production of Yury Klavdiev’s I Am the Machine Gunner was featured.  I had never heard of Yury Klavdiev and did not speak Russian, but during the hour-long production, I was stunned by the structure of the language, the rhythmic poetry that transcended language and riveted itself to my core.  Walking home from the theatre that evening, I asked Freedman to tell me more about the play, the script in particular.  At the end of our walk back to the hotel, I found myself saying how much I would love to see an English translation of I Am the Machine Gunner and Freedman was in concord, he would translate the piece.

Two weeks later, I had an early translation of I Am the Machine Gunner in my hand and work began.  As Freedman and I continued our conversations over the following months, Klavdiev’s work would intrigue me and compel me, making demands upon my abilities as an artist, and drive me to direct I Am the Machine Gunner and translate another Klavdiev play with Yury Urnov, Martial Arts, for the New Russian Drama program at Towson University.

_IGP6270Photo from Towson University’s Production of Martial Arts

Looking back on my initial encounter with I Am The Machine Gunner much is revealed about Klavdiev’s work. I Am The Machine Gunner spoke to me through rhythms, textures and tones out of a language I did not understand.  Klavdiev’s work relies heavily on language, melding the sharp poetry of violence with shapely bursts of romantic imagery as can be seen in the following passage from I Am the Machine Gunner:

It was right then I noticed the crows were as calm as any Sunday.  Just like somebody drew them in there with a pencil.  It was only when I started firing at them that they raised up and flew over the trees.  That was the ones that survived.  The others that I nailed hit the ground so fast their own blood came rainin’ down on ‘em when they were already lying dead in the grass (Machine Gunner, Freedman translation 15).

Aggressive, vivid and uncompromising, his language paints a multi-directional emotional portrait that guides the voice of the performer and the minds of the audience through tonal and spatial imagery.  The poetry of the language creates a force, but so does Klavdiev’s ability to transcend and subvert genres and expectations.

Much as the word “badass” is composed of two words collided together to form another, Klavdiev works as an atom-smashing playwright, driving forms and structures together to create new ways of telling stories and new stories to tell.  The binary structures, themes, and characters present in Martial Arts and I Am The Machine Gunner create unusual combinations, not describable with a succinct phrase or singular comparison:  I Am The Machine Gunner evokes some combination of Grand Theft Auto (a violent American video game that has featured an up and coming Russian gang member as a protagonist) and Saving Private Ryan (a graphic and vivid Steven Spielberg film about World War II) in a quest to find honor in violent acts.  Martial Arts blends together the childhood innocence of Bridge to Terebethia (a U.S. children’s book about two children creating an imaginary kingdom) and Pulp Fiction (the Quentin Tarantino film featuring heroin-fueled gangsters) to ask whether children should be considered guilty for the crimes of their parents.

Bridging genres allows Klavdiev great latitude to present magical or unexpected moments of theatricality. In Martial Arts, Klavdiev creates a world between the magic-realism of childhood and the ultra-violent hyperrealism of drug dealers and crooked cops, presenting the possibility through which supernatural events appear to be within the bounds of verisimilitude. In Klavdiev’s plays things happen, rarely in the way one would expect or how one thought they might – but they happen. For instance, the bullets missing the children because they are praying or when the children conjure the Queen of Spades, a folkloric spirit who is consumed with evil, to feast on the wounded drug lord and deceased cop; these are moments when what the characters need to happen can happen, but only because this is a play and anything can happen in a play.  In this imagined/created world, the impossible can become possible and when our hero says, “That was so fucking cool,” the audience can be simultaneously swept away in the magic of the moment and aware that such things don’t happen in the real world.

Martical Art 0075

Photo from Towson University’s Production of Martial Arts

In I Am The Machine Gunner, Klavdiev is once again melding binaries and evoking the supernatural to create an effect that is simultaneously disorienting and vivid.  The Grandfather’s voice unexpectedly erupting from the Young Man creates a supernatural effect of binary characters speaking from a single vessel. Machine Gunner transcends time and place to present a complex portrait of war:  the Young Man’s story of gang violence is interrupted by his Grandfather’s tales of the horrors of World War II.  Presenting these stories in graphic detail, jumping between the two characters, and allowing moments in which confusion is an acceptable risk, the audience sees both characters crumble under the weight of their respective realities.  The moments of confusion gain emotional weight as the audience reconciles which of the two characters (or perhaps both of the characters) has made this revelation.  By contrasting the heroism and meaning of the Grandfather’s battles with the hubris of the young man’s gangland shootings, Klavdiev makes a vivid statement on necessary violence and, to paraphrase Klavdiev (who is in turn paraphrasing Robert Rodriguez): discovering the moment in life when you begin fighting for what you love, not against what you hate.

Yury Klavdiev’s works are blueprints, there is little in the script and yet everything is in the script. His plays take time to unfold, time to discover, and time to explore.  In I Am the Machine Gunner, the switches between characters are sometimes not indicated in the script and there are several moments in which both characters may be speaking simultaneously, which are also critical moments in the revelation of the character and for the audience.  Klavdiev’s plays The Polar Truth and Slow Sword contain scenes in which the characters’ names do not appear with the dialogue.  The language is clear and the characters clearly differentiated, except when they are not: and this is when the script demands exploration and investigation.  In Martial Arts, the script presents imagery that may be realized in a variety of ways, including the psychological, surrealistic, realistic, or metatheatrical.  For any of these scripts, different collaborators may arrive at different conclusions, these plays demand collaboration and decision; this is one key that makes this work so inviting and exciting to the artistic sensibility.

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Photo from Generous Company’s production of I Am the Machine Gunner

Klavdiev’s appeal to the artistic sensibility is the part of his work that remains behind the scenes, but onstage Klavdiev’s knowledge of American cinema and music resonate with audiences in the archetypes they present and in the dramatic structure that stays one step ahead of the audience. When I first met Klavdiev, we talked of Robocop, New York, St. Petersburg, Detroit, Rancid, punk, ska and played songs from our I-Pods.  Klavdiev talked about a new play he was writing set in a dog park and was structured after one of Sergio Leone’s westerns.  Klavdiev is well versed in the archetypes and structures that are ingrained in American sensibilities, and yet he writes theatre that is startling, enchanting and forceful.  Klavdiev does not avoid cinematic moments; he embraces their vivid fluidity and then molds them into deft theatrical images that linger in the mind.  Klavdiev achieves this melding of the cinematic with the theatrical without bowing to any of the rules or conventions that are taught to many American playwrights. His work can evoke the same excitement of an action film or a punk rock concert, with the heart pumping and the mind reeling as the walls crash down, but we are in the room as the walls tumble, seeing the dust and feeling the breeze.

Translating Martial Arts with Yury Urnov, I found the true joy present in Klavdiev’s language: a yearning to play with words, invent slang, and punch the “f” word with voracity.  His bold choices of words and rhythms have encouraged me to push my own lexicon in the translation process, going for the interesting and evocative rather than the obvious; finding the details of characters in silence or in gunshots; embracing the audacity of the moment; and acknowledging the possibility that what is not understand or must be discovered might be the key to unlocking the whole script.  Klavdiev writes in no nonsense language that veers into the poetic and back to a deafening silence.

Martical Art 0060

Photo from Towson University’s Production of Martial Arts

Yury Klavdiev’s plays push boundaries, simultaneously incite fear and sympathy, subvert genre as well as medium, and demand the creation of a new aesthetic category that can only be labeled the aesthetics of badass.  Klavdiev is tough, uncompromising, intimidating, and that demands that the artists who undertake the task of producing his work, embodying those characters, or translating his words will have to live up to those same ideals.  By telling stories how he tells stories instead of how one is taught to tell stories, Yury Klavdiev rises above the predictable, the mundane, offering instead magic and clenched fists, but the aesthetics of badass create art that is aggressive, unrelenting, and might make a point loud enough that you hear it all the way to your heart.


Presented in January 2013 in Austin, Texas at Breaking String’s:  NRDF%20logo

  • Here’s the text in Cyrillic from the publication in Contemporary Dramaturgy:

  • And one of the few English words that could not be translated:

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