A Little Piece of the Sun
nytheatre.com review by Stan Richardson
August 15, 2009
A Little Piece of the Sun is a relevant play that should be seen before it becomes more relevant. Daniel McKleinfeld's "documentary for the stage," first produced at the New York International Fringe Festival in 2001 and currently running at the Brick Theatre in a dynamic and eye-catching production directed by Ian W. Hill, examines two devastating by-products of the former Soviet Union: a sexual predator and a nuclear power plant.
The latter, Chernobyl Reactor #4, which exploded on April 26, 1986, sending up a far-reaching plume of radioactive fallout into the atmosphere, is well-known to most Americans. However, you may not know much about Andrei Chikatilo if you have heard of him at all. Considered one of the most prolific serial killers, Chikatilo raped, murdered, and mutilated (not necessarily in that order) upwards of 50 young women and children throughout Russia between 1978 and 1990.
A Little Piece of the Sun highlights the circumstances under which Chikatilo was able to thrive, including a police force that had not encountered such a criminal whose image is now so familiar: wife and two kids, keeps to himself, travels for work, volunteers with law enforcement. Without the benefit of (or interest in?) forensic psychology and profiling, officers rounded up known homosexuals and mentally-ill citizens and treated them to a brutal and protracted interrogation. More comprehensively, the playwright shows us the conception and creation of the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl, along with the eloquent (though oft-censored) accounts of those citizens rightly suspicious of this reckless, unregulated venture.
I am inevitably sweeping over a great many specifics, and those are a key feature and strength of McKleinfeld's detailed script which is drawn entirely from documentary texts and witness accounts. In most moments, Hill, with his cast of 14 (which easily feels like 40), uses the play's unique blend of expositional and incantatory styles to create simple yet startling spectacles. The intractable course that begins with the notoriously unsafe safety experiment (a repeat of a test tried unsuccessfully several times before) on Chernobyl Reactor #4 at 1:23am is, in Hill's staging, an edge-of-the-seat experience. Too, the depiction of Chikatilo's barbarous killings, using no blood or knife, only words and shadows, is almost unbearably real.
Both the playwright and the director make us empathize with the victims. They do not get carried away with Chikatilo's perverted luck in "outsmarting" the police, nor do they overwhelm us with facts and statistics relating to the effects of the radiation on the suddenly-former citizens of Pripyat, the metropolis beside the power plant. They put us in the room with Death. This is an uncommon achievement and sets this theatrical experience apart from most others of its kind.
A lot of information has been loaded into this play—about the birth, life, and death of the Soviet Union and the history of nuclear power—and I did not retain much of it. At times the production does not transcend the severe limitations of the play's source material—the uninterrupted chunks of personal testimony, the rhetorical (if emphatic) journalism, and the tech-jargoned explanations. (It is only so compelling for so long to witness characters speaking about themselves in third person or casually spewing scientific facts in the self-conscious guise of cocktail conversation.) The one outstanding exception to this is the character of Chikatilo himself, portrayed with a fidgety, soured charm by Tom Reid whose performance says as much as any biography on this killer could convey—and possibly more.
In addition to being often engrossing, A Little Piece of the Sun takes pains to wake us up and warn us of something—our own routinized lifesleep. This is not targeted at the judgmentless Just-doing-my-job-bers, who would not be so intrepid as to venture out to see a play, but to those of us who do make and support theatre. We may not be in an advisory position in the State Department, but that does not excuse us from the responsibility to address the same issues they are addressing—and, of course, to address their method of addressing them. There's a lot that theatre can do besides aping the curiosity-deadening preoccupations of most television, film, and web-phenomena. Ian W. Hill's production of Daniel McKleinfeld's A Little Piece of the Sun demonstrates this admirably.