‘Kursk’ starts slow, blossoms into moving physical ensemble piece

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On August 12, 2000, a Russian submarine sank in the Barents Sea during routine naval exercises. Eventually, all 118 crew members aboard the Kursk perished, after agonizing hours of breathing emergency oxygen. “Kursk” is Theatre Lunatico’s dramatic retelling of that story.

Inspired by this disaster, British playwright Bryony Lavery wrote “Kursk” to explore the response of a fictional British submarine crew monitoring the incident. Originally written for a handful of men, Theatre Lunatico’s “Kursk” is peopled by a talented cast of six women. Director Tina Taylor maintained that her casting decisions were an intentional aspect of the company’s mission.

She expressed issues with the preponderance of male-dominated war narratives, and she wanted an opportunity for women to reclaim access to that world.

I work really hard to create gender parity and to put women’s stories at the forefront of the work that we do. It’s important to me, to be constantly working to redress the balance in theater. It’s an essential part of our company philosophy, and it’s an essential part of my work,” Taylor said in an interview with The Daily Californian.

In doing so, her cast explores the often self-destructively masculine arena of nuclear submarine operations. “The Boss” (a stoic Eileen Fisher) constantly hammers into her crew the importance of split-second decision-making and of having “monomaniacal confidence” in their training and instincts. The play’s central conflict revolves around the breaking down of this confidence, when a situation presents itself that jams the gears of a ruthlessly efficient machine — should the sailors save the dying Russian men or retreat to safety?

But “Kursk” is also a story about secrets. It’s a story about the boundaries we put up around our secrets to protect ourselves and to protect others. It’s about the way those boundaries — the ones we think are impenetrable — are actually porous, unreliable and ultimately beyond explanation. Behind the guise of a protracted submarine procedural, chock full of naval jargon and rambunctious sailors, “Kursk” hides a powerfully moving story that will be sure to surprise the patient audience member.

La Val’s Subterranean Theatre was an immediate fit for this show. Taylor mentioned the effect of the theater’s quirks on the their process — “We’re really loving it. And it is challenging, I’m not going to say it’s the perfect venue … Definitely staging anything in there is tight; we have some really difficult visual lines.”

The space has a low ceiling outlined in stark concrete walls that lends itself to the claustrophobic feeling of a tightly packed submarine. In the set, curving aluminum pipes outlined the walls and hatches between different chambers. These walls, however, were completely empty. They were devoid of any sense of visible or material solidity. The aluminum piping merely suggested the existence of boundaries, and indeed some of the most powerful moments of the play happened in dissonant moments of misconstrued privacy, when the reality of these boundaries was tested.

On either side of the small set, private conversations were often had about characters sitting just feet away. The existence of privacy was known only to the characters, and the audience was able to use this dramatic irony in order to reconstruct the subtext of the play.

Other moments had actors physically straddling the suggestions of walls or even had them “break the rules” by passing an arm directly through. “Although it’s a tiny (stage), there are very different spaces within that set design, and how each person hold themselves there is something we talked about and explored,” Taylor said. Each of these moments felt meaningful, and it was clear that Taylor spent ample time with the script.

The sound design of the show was equally important to setting the mood. The beeps, drones and clicks of the submarine’s machinery easily created a sense of heightened adrenaline and constant danger that played into many of the climaxes. Additionally, the crew relied heavily on sonar to identify enemy craft, which made for captivating moments of intense communal listening.

However, there were some issues when recorded phone conversations wouldn’t line up with actual dialogue being spoken or when actors would respond late to sounds played on the speaker system. Those technical elements often felt rather unrehearsed, in contrast to the easygoing feel of the rest of the show.

“Kursk” is an early entry of Theatre Lunatico’s new residence at La Val’s. It appears that the company will easily be able to fill the shoes of the previous resident, Impact Theatre, which was known for their consistent willingness to experiment with new actors, scripts and concepts — “Kursk” feels in line with this tradition. Though the runtime felt long, “Kursk” is a surprisingly intimate, moving retelling of a story with a premise that didn’t initially seem to lend itself to a stage production.

“Kursk” is playing at La Val’s Subterranean Theatre until April 8.

Contact Feroz James at [email protected].