2010 Edmonton Fringe Review Day 2

Autobiographical and semi-autobiographical plays tend to litter around Fringe Theatre Festivals much like, well, the actual litter of Fringe Theatre Festivals. Like the litter itself, some of them turn out to be gems, but the majority of them turn out to be pretty much shit. The problem is that the egos of playwrights and performers are hard to contain, and they remain convinced that they can make their life interesting. A challenge for them would be to pick some random person -- say, a prominent Edmonton blogger? -- and turn that guy's life into an interesting little one-man show put on by somebody maybe not quite as handsome as me but in the same vein. Kiefer Sutherland perhaps?

Fortunately for all concerned, The Sputniks is not one of those plays: though it certainly feels like it at first. Elison Zasko starts us off by introducing us to the narrator, Katyana [no playbill was provided, so if the cast or crew don't like how we spelt the names here its all your fault. -ed], a precocious young thing who seemed to be of school age but young enough that her memory was faulty when "the event" occured. She is talking to her father Boris and her mother Tatyana -- both played by Zasko in this one-woman show -- about life in the Soviet Union before they came to Canada.

As Jewish intellectuals, they had to first endure prejudice in mother Russia, suspicions abounding about their loyalty to the state. Through the pains of lineups and homemade pickles, Boris talks about his courtship of Tatyana and the two of them tell their daughter the story of their slavic life, more prejudice in Austria and later in a Swedish sanitorium before the "present day" part of the story, which for various reasons is hard to pin down. The 1968 Polish crisis is a little too recent, though Jewish refugees continued to depart from the Soviet Union until 1989.

Zasko is fairly adept at the physical and vocal aspects of playing the multiple characters (at my count she plays a total of 5), and particularly Tatyana's metamorphosis through time. Parts of the story tend to drag, and its ironic at one point that Boris (who knows nothing of creative writing) tries to talk about story structure explain to the audience and Tatyana that a story should have "an introduction, a climax, and a conclusion" seeing as how the play itself suffers from a bit of a problem of structure. The mostly liner narrative breaks from linear just often enough to be confusing, not often enough to suit the drama. The play is meant to be read as a serious drama with a dash of humour, but a combination of the actress and the audience means that too many scenes which need to be played out straight are instead milked for a quick laugh.

The Sputniks, as I suppose I should have surmised from the title characters, does have a bit of a science fiction twist ending which retroactively redeems much of the play. However, unlike movies with twist endings its not really possible to "go back" and rewatch it to catch all the subtle-ish clues and moments that you missed. Still, its not a semi-autobiographical work. And for that we should be eternally grateful.