A Russian proverb says, "To live a life is not as simple as crossing a field." Or, crossing a field can be far more complicated than it would seem to be. Or needs to be. Similarly, Shoot Them in the Cornfields! is an ambitious, poetic production that wants to be about many things, but in the end has too much going on and is more complicated than necessary. This new play by Sophia Murashkovsky tells several convoluted stories, the main one dealing with a young, American Jewish student, Sonya, in Moscow during the turbulent days of the 1991 coup d'état. The play also includes the story of Sonya's Russian grandparents, Yelena and Mikhail Levin, who were arrested and sent to prison in the 1950's by the KGB, ostensibly because they were successful Jewish business owners accused of "entrepreneurialism." Much of this portion takes place during a cruel interrogation of the couple. Other narratives include the Levins' romance during World War II and a subsequent abortion, and the failed love affair of Sonya and a Russian soldier, Dimitri.
The title, Shoot Them in the Cornfields!, comes from the midcentury Russian government's practice of murdering mentally retarded citizens. Many were shot in cornfields. The Levins had successfully employed mentally retarded workers who, after the dismantling of the couple's factory, were later executed.
The entire play is performed in a singsong verse that at some points is clever but often detracts from the storytelling, with lines that seem to go far off the narratives in order to keep the rhyme scheme. One interesting effect of the verse is that the language becomes alienating, in a "Brechtian" sense, to the audience; it is different enough that it can never be mistaken for "real" speech. Indeed, the production includes many aspects that could be considered Brechtian. This includes the show's best bit, the second-act opener that features a movie projection where the cast is seen onscreen singing and dancing to "Russianized" versions of American show tunes, with lyrics such as "not a ruble to spare for the Chattanooga choo-choo?" The cast watches itself onscreen, effectively becoming part of the audience.
Yet this playful interlude has elements that are as sinister as they are alienating. The projection is crosscut with words like "desire" and "ambition." At one point, the actors, who are singing over the original soundtrack, hold a note for a startlingly long time, changing its pitch to a deeper, more ominous one midway through. Near the end of the song, the dancing begins to less resemble the innocent tap that accompanies show tunes and becomes more like the marching boots of soldiers going to war. The result is upsettingly appropriate for a production that displays the brutality of an oppressive regime.
With reserve and dignity, Yelena (Carolyn Seiff) aptly plays the Jewish grandmother who perseveres through many hardships. As Sonya, Maila Miller is frenetic and seems nervous onstage. Joey Klein, as Dimitri, the xenophobic Russian boyfriend, has dreamy good looks and an appropriate slyness about him, but often appears stiff. The best performance was by Grant Morenz as the KGB informant Ivan, who is strangely presented as foppishly gay, at once outlandish and threatening.
A major problem was the tech work, which was particularly off during this performance. It was full of mistakes, which could be seen as a deliberately alienating effect, such as lights turning on and off at inappropriate moments, but more likely were ill-timed light cues. In a few moments, the sound cues seemed to be mistimed as well.
The set consists of a simple wooden ramp with a small platform jutting off from either side. This unnaturalistic setting, coupled with the rhyming dialogue, the alienating effects, and the characters' ability to simply "walk" from scene to scene, covering vast distances, eras, and stories, gives the overall production a dream-like effect, where the lines between reality and fantasy are blurred.
Overall, Shoot Them in the Cornfields! is a victim of its own ambitions, and it attempts to do too much. The themes are many: memory, loss of love, Russian nationhood. There are too many plot lines to follow, and some of these are not even resolved in the script. Unanswered questions sprout like fresh stalks of corn: Exactly why does Dimitri suddenly turn on Sonya? Is he dealing drugs or involved in prostitution? Why is Ivan played as gay? What is the purpose of the two girls who begin to fondle each other in the background late in the show?
This is a challenging production that tries to tell the story of an American girl who, by retrieving her family's past, salvages her present. Like memory itself, however, the piece is a muddled thing of conflicting narratives and modes. What results is a confusing collection of assertions, images, and ideas.