So. Little Tiger the housecat (Don McClendon) has just opened a jar of pickles and is devouring one of the gherkins while his owner, Lili (Jane Paradise), who is resplendent in a head-to-toe pink outfit, attempts to wrest the briny treat away from him. They're standing in the humble Moscow apartment of Prisypkin, Lili's distant Russian relation, whom she's never met. How a cat (who we know is a man; McClendon's not wearing any cat makeup, just a black suit and white tie, though he did paint his nails opaque white to better look like claws) opens a jar is a mystery that didn't really seem noteworthy at the time. In retrospect, it's a weird scene especially seeing as how Little Tiger is quite amorous toward Lili, whose response to Little Tiger is always gale of indulgent, satisfied giggles. And as mentioned, he's behaving like a cat but looks like a man. And he loves pickles.
And this isn't even the strangest scene in Philip Boehm's Return of the Bedbug.
Boehm's play, inspired by Vladimir Mayakovsky's 1929 Soviet-approved satire The Bedbug, shares a conceit with Mayakovsky's piece: Vladimir Prisypkin, a hustler, will be trapped in suspended animation with a bedbug for a number of years, then reawaken in a world he doesn't understand. In Boehm's story, Prisypkin is an electrician in the mid-'80s Soviet Union who is accidentally frozen in time while participating in the most sublimely communist light bulb-replacement operation you'll ever witness. Lili, his fortuitously visiting American relation, takes Prisypkin back to the States out of a sense of family obligation, where he awakens in the very familiar St. Louis of 2007 and tries to find his way in the new world.
Boehm's handling of both script and direction in this Upstream Theatre production is very much akin to a gifted conductor leading a well-tempered orchestra through its paces. Everything seen in the first half of the play (the Russian past) has a counterpoint in the second half (modern America). Moscow is a city in the later stages of breakdown; the buses don't run on time, the power supply is sporadic, the available jobs are degrading and low-paying. Prisypkin's journeys in modern St. Louis reveal a city not unlike the Moscow he remembers. When he first returns to life, Prisypkin believes he's in the afterworld, but Lili reassures him, "It's not Heaven, or Hell. It's just St. Louis." Somewhere, Nikolai Gogol laughs up his sleeve.
Return of the Bedbug is such a high-concept piece that rather than isolate the one unbelievable event, Boehm surrounds it with even more ridiculous instances shot glasses appear from nowhere, bedbugs sing, Little Tiger's magical television remote control speeds up time. The result of all the madness is that the ultimate unbelievable occurrence Prisypkin's decades-long slumber doesn't register as an aberration.
And that's the magnificent payoff to Return of the Bedbug: There's so much minor lunacy in our own lives that we fail to notice when something completely outrageous happens. Prisypkin, played splendidly by J. Samuel Davis, is the audience's stunt double, taking all of reality's punches and slaps for us, until he's finally kicked fully awake and aware of his fate. Davis has a magnanimous charm, singing Stevie Wonder joyously in the face of oppression and putting the moves on every woman he meets. His final plea to the audience "Stevie Wonder, where are you?" is much more terrifying than it reads.
Kari Ely, as Prisypkin's tempestuous Russian paramour, Zoya, is a glam-trash lightning bolt in the first act; in the second half, mellowed as she is by time and loneliness, we view her dismissal by Prisypkin as harrowing. How can such vitality be so callously snuffed? Joe Hanrahan plays Professor Vobrazhensky, the man responsible for Prisypkin's state, with quirky, comic grace. Accompanying his daughter Vera (Briston Ashe) on second violin in a performance of a Sibelius piece that exists only in the Vobrazhenskys' minds, Hanrahan and Ashe create a silent poem that captivates Prisypkin and the audience. "It's a matter of training the imagination," the Professor explains afterward. Yes, it is. The current state of all the American Prisypkins is simply a matter of training the imagination.