Death Wish — Dark, soviet and comical, ‘The Suicide’ comes to SBCC

All Semyon Semyonovich wants is a late-night snack of liverwurst. Yes, he’s duly upset when he realizes his career as a concert tuba player can’t start because he can’t afford the piano to tune it. And yes, he’s been unemployed for a year. Somehow, though, his thoughts turn to suicide, and that’s where his real troubles begin.

Nikolai Erdman’s dark farce “The Suicide” has a history as troubled as its protagonist. Written in 1928, the Soviet author’s play ran afoul of authorities over its subject matter (and cracks against Marx), leading it to be banned for decades. Towing party line, Erdman never took on such weighty issues again, opting instead to write children’s comedies.

The play started making a comeback in the late ’60s, had a brief run on Broadway in the early ’80s and has been intermittently performed since. Now, director Katie Laris brings a trimmed-down version to SBCC’s Interim Theatre with a large all-student cast.

“It’s a play we’ve all enjoyed working on a bunch,” Laris says.

It was a quick turnaround too, after her first choice — an equally obscure play — turned out to be on UCSB’s theater schedule for 2010. The inspiration came from Laris’s coworker Margaret Prothero, who had seen the play ages ago at PCPA.

Once Semyon has declared his half-hearted attempt to kill himself, all sorts of characters turn up, and they all want one thing: Semyon to die for his or her own cause, be it political or personal. While this is happening, he begins to understand who he is and what is important.

Laris has trimmed the play’s five acts to two and the 30 written cast members to 17. Even so, that’s a lot of students to get onto the stage. She has also taken out a lot of the contemporary political jokes that no longer have bite, cut repetitious characters and speeches and collapsed two acts into one, as they both take place at a wake.

“I think the flavor of the play is preserved,” she says. “And we’ve left in all the different names for the characters, as they’re funny.”

Unlike the typical SBCC stagings at the still-under-renovation Garvin Theatre, this production limits the cast to active theater students. Laris calls it a kind of “give back” to the pupils during this transitional period. The lead role is taken by a student in his 40s (James Stenger), and Laris has been benefiting from the college’s wide age range of enrollment.

“This play has been a real stretch for our students,” she says, because of the 1920s setting. “It’s a very specific set of circumstances … this whole atmosphere of fear and distrust of government.”

The entire second act of the play requires every cast member to be on stage at once, and they all have to completely embody the characters at the same time.

“There’s really no room to hide,” she says. “You can’t duck behind somebody.”

In order to take on the cast, Laris has turned to Andrew Grenier (last seen in “Seascape”) as a second acting coach, allowing a tag-team style of directing.

“He’s my secret weapon,” she says. “But honestly, I could use 12 more people.”

If so, why did she decide to do it?

“It’s fun!” she says. “It’s really quite Cecil B. DeMille.”

When: 8 p.m. March 11-13 and 16-20, 2 p.m. March 14
Where: Santa Barbara City College’s Interim Theatre, 721 Cliff Drive
Cost: $15 general, $12 seniors, $6 students
Information: (805) 965-5935

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