When the performing bear shows up, listen closely. Ian Johnston/Dangerpants Photography

"Zapoi" is Russian slang, dating back to at least the 19th century, for the national habit of going on days-long benders so catastrophic that, as one ethnographer reported to the Anthropological Society of London in 1870, they "are regarded as a disease." The word doesn't appear anywhere besides the title in Quinn Armstrong's world-premiere comedy at Annex Theatre, but it could be a one-word summary of a sprawling fantasia that treats Russian suffering and derangement as an endemic sickness.

From a certain point of view, Zapoi! is a promising but flawed play—a long hodgepodge of tropes and caricatures stapled to the thinnest thread of a plot and barely hanging together—but I can't help loving it. It takes place in the Ural town of Vikhrevoy, where centuries are layered over one another and happening simultaneously. The ecstatic painter-saint Andrei Rublev is living in 1364 and walking the same streets as the play's heroin-addicted narrator, Sobaka (1992); the corrupt priest Matvei (1770) eats marshmallows at a bistro owned by a gay Italian (2014), and then signs up to work as a torturer for the sweetly poisonous KGB agent Oksana (1950). These characters, plus a few others, occupy intersecting social orbits— chatting, working, drinking vodka, falling in love, and betraying one another—in a remote place where each day is every day. It's a delirious and damaged run at Our Town, filtered through the battered kidneys of Russian history.

Zapoi!'s ambitious and quasi-magical—but ultimately cold-eyed—look at a menagerie of benighted characters is a distant cousin of Roberto Bolaño's ominous but sometimes strangely comic fiction about literature and violence in Latin America, with a dose of Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon. As the good-naturedly fatalistic Sobaka (Carol Thompson) says toward the end of the play: "So it goes... summer never lasts and the monster always wins. All we can do is keep our heads down and wait for our turn to be the monster." Thompson plays the addict-narrator with a wide-eyed sincerity, as someone who's been down so long, it looks like up to her. While the rest of the characters chase their tails through various national nightmares, she watches, perturbed only by her cravings. Alongside Thompson's junkie serenity, Kayla Walker gives a commanding performance as the KGB agent Oksana, a woman with 1940s Hollywood glamour and torture chambers hidden behind her meticulously charming smile. "You might want to pay attention to this next part," she tells one of her targets, the composer Kiril (loosely based on Shostakovich and played by Frank Lawler as an indignant genius). "From here on out, things are going to get a little weird."

Also like Bolaño's work, Zapoi! tends to be funniest when things are at their worst. While interrogating Kiril, who refuses to write a symphony for Stalin, the torturer-priest (a big, blustery Kevin Bordi) drives himself to dizzying heights of insult: "You weak cheese of a man... I'd call you a cunt but you lack the warmth and the depth." During another interrogation, when the poet-saint tells the priest he is forgiven, the priest flies into a rage, beating the saint while using his cross like brass knuckles, shouting: "I am the forgiver! I am the forgiver!"

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Zapoi! may be occasionally unwieldy, but its darkness is delightful. Among its other strange features, Vikhrevoy was once home to the number-one academy for performing bears in Europe. Midway through the show, one of them shuffles onto the stage to share parts of his act with the audience. "Stalin is visiting a school in a remote part of Russia," he says into a microphone. "He asks one child: 'Who is your father?' 'My father is Stalin.' 'Who is your mother?' 'My mother is Russia.' 'What do you want to be when you grow up?' 'An orphan!'"

The bear is never seen again. recommended

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