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Sex—and Politics—in the Soviet City: Review of Bridget Bailey’s Child of Hungry Times

By Julia Voss
Posted August 16, 2006

Following an introduction by a scarf-swathed babushka, the first act of Bridget Bailey’s one-woman show, Child of Hungry Times, could easily be a page from one of the better-written episodes of Sex in the City. The first character to appear is a young career woman, tossing back shots of vodka while describing to a cluster of girlfriends a male coworker’s feeble attempts to seduce her. The young woman’s story blends into monologues by the other characters—two struggling single mothers, an abused disabled woman, a feisty tomboy, and a lonely housewife—to depict one neighborhood’s female circle of friends.  

This premise, based on the writings of Soviet-censored author Lyudmila Petrushevskaya (1938– ), lightheartedly sets the stage for the increasingly grim world the characters narrate. Bailey wrote the one-woman show using the Petruvshevskaya’s novels, plays, and collections of short stories—in the original Russian, since some of her works remain untranslated or poorly translated—as source material. Yet, amazingly, each character rings incredibly true and familiar to the audience. Bailey achieves this effect by having the six characters within the show speak unaccented English—but with various regional and social dialects—so that the audience identifies directly with them as distinct personalities from within their own culture.  

The six female characters descriptions of everyday life in the USSR demonstrate the huge gap between the socialist utopia the Russian government promised and the hardscrabble society it created. Based on her experience as a woman living in the USSR, Petruvshevskaya focuses on issues which affect women particularly: relationships and families.  

As the single mother's and the disabled woman’s stories particularly highlight, the gender equality and new morality which the Soviet government promised often extended no further the legislatures which enacted them. The women complain of men who refuse to provide for their own children because the state has dissolved the sanctity of marriage, of the need to protect their children from neglect and indoctrination in state-run orphanages, and of the inaccessibility of purportedly state-sponsored abortions.  

However, the show’s greatest success comes from Bailey’s ability to create characters that American audiences can identify immediately while firmly situating them in a Russian context. She achieves this by focusing on the particulars of the show’s USSR setting, using allusions to highly recognizable Soviet topics like the KGB and the state monopoly on consumer goods.  

Bailey also creates an immediately recognizable Russian character not found in Petrushevskaya’s work: a babushka narrator with a thick accent. Unlike the six women within the show, who are sarcastically critical of the government right from the start, the babushka begins as a state sycophant who finally becomes radicalized by great disparity between official polity and reality.  

These details about life in Russia, Bailey says, are what veterans of the USSR appreciate most about Child of Hungry Times. The difficulties of life in Russia which belied the government’s lofty promises—and the characters’ critical but deadpan description of them—remind many Russian viewers of conversations they used to have “back home in the old days.” The babushka demonstrates that there were limits to how long even staunch supporters of the regime could ignore reality and buy into delusional government propaganda.   

The final scene of the play connects Bailey’s interpretation of Petrushevskaya’s Soviet critique to contemporary politics. The last lines of the play, spoken by the babushka, criticize some specific USSR practices, such as imprisoning people without trial, tapping citizens’ phones without warrants, and invading the Middle East under the guise of promoting of “democracy” to serve its own national interests. However, the obvious parallels between Soviet policy and current US anti-terrorist policy demonstrate that the US, despite its overwhelming rhetoric of “freedom,” is in some ways just as totalitarian and abusive of its power as the USSR was.  

Bailey’s Child of Hungry Times offers a critical, but thoroughly realistic, view of life in the USSR which audiences from both the US and Russia can immediately identify with. Moreover, the familiar characters and government practices point out to American viewers the striking similarities between the Russia under Soviet rule, a country generally recognized as corrupt and abusive, and the US under the Bush administration.  

Following Child of Hungry Times' run at the Washington Ensemble Theater in July, Bridget Bailey has been invited to perform her show at Moscow's prestigious Fomenko Studio this fall.

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