Bed and Sofa began its life as the wonderfully scandalous 1926 silent film directed by Abram Room and starring three of the Soviet Union’s most popular actors. For most of the twentieth century, Room’s film received ritual mention in Soviet and Western film histories, but mostly as a footnote in the development of the new art of film.
In the 1970’s the movie began to be taken up by a newer generation of film historians, such as Molly Haskell, who began to see it as “one of the most extraordinary feminist films of that [the 1920’s] or any other time.” The film began to make the rounds of various film festivals and began to be recognized for its frank depiction of ‘real life’ and its startling naturalistic acting style. Early American film actors had found their way into new medium of film via the Broadway stage and the circus. The acting style that we often associate with the silent era is one of broad gestures and quirky movement. This was to be expected as that was how actors worked on the stages of their era without the help of microphones, electric stage lighting, and computerized scenery. They needed to be larger and more declamatory to be heard and seen from the balconies. But, film pioneers like D. W. Griffith and Abram Room were busy creating such novel conventions as the ‘closeup’ and the ‘cut away shot,’ and thereby inventing the need for an entirely new style of acting for the film.
And Bed and Sofa was certainly that. It was an experiment in how to tell a simple story on film with only one set, three actors and a hand held camera around the busy streets of Moscow. Room’s team spun a complex and shifting tale of a love triangle in a cramped apartment during a severe housing shortage in modern Moscow. The film was an indictment of the wave of utopian ‘free love’ that came in with the revolution and was being actively stamped out by the Stalinist regime of the 1920s.
When Volodya excitedly comes to the big city to begin work as a printer he is met with the rude shock that due to government regulations, he must have a permanent address in order to hold a job of any kind. And, there is this housing shortage plaguing Moscow. It’s a “Catch Twenty-Two” that is only broken when he happens upon his old friend Kolya in the street who offers him his sofa. When Kolya, his wife, Ludmilla and Volodya set up house in the tiny apartment, a string of shifting alliances, lovers and situations are set into motion.
Polly Pen and Laurence Klavan’s adaptation of movie is a mini-masterpiece. They obviously spent a great deal of love and devotion to making this story over for the stage. To begin with, the lyrics are adaptations of the title cards in the film. These phrases and musical motifs repeat over and over again. Each new time they are sung, they take on a new context as the story deepens. It’s simple and yet, it’s very complex and extremely specific. They have managed to create a faithful reproduction of the film that still holds its own as a piece of live theatre.
I’ve been a silent film fan for many years. When we produced this play in 2004, it was just our third production (of 37 now to date!). But it was so well received (by the few people who knew of our new company who actually saw it!), that it has remained one of the most often requested revivals we have. People who saw it ask to be able to see it again. Those who missed it have asked us for an opportunity to see what the fuss was about. We know this: It was due to Bed and Sofa that audiences began to discover what this new company was about and the kind of works we intended to create.
Revisiting it has been a great experience. Rather than a straight re-mount, this version of Bed and Sofa is entirely new. The new cast is different. The set is similar but different, and with the new capabilities of the Old Town Theatre, we are able to flesh this show out even further. It’s both bigger, and smaller. We’ve been enjoying this amazing opportunity to explore the silent film style of acting and story telling. We have been faithful to the original movie and watched it and studied it for inspiration. We admired the acting in the film and then took off and brought our own insights to the piece. We hope you enjoy the surprises in this highly unique mini-silent-movie-opera. It’s both big and small. Not another word.