An “endangered scholar” is how Sufian Zhemukhov describes himself in his 2021 Cincy Fringe show From Russia Without Love. A political scientist who is a refugee from Putin's Russia, Zhemukhov has some fascinating stories to tell about the KGB, espionage, and his experiences writing about Russia as an academic scholar.
This is a plus, since his experiences are different and compelling enough to make for a solid show. The underlying paranoia that comes from Putin's Russia makes even small things, such as having a case of vertigo, devolve into a decision whether to induce self-vomiting because of the possibility of poisoning.
Although this material is compelling, the show is offset by a lack of theatricality. Zhemukhov gets onto Zoom and simply talks with no change in background (apart from moving his laptop ninety degrees so that we can see him speaking at another angle in the same room) or even background music between the different stories. In keeping with the show’s feverish description, I expected to see Zoom background shots of the Kremlin or a shirtless Putin with the James Bond theme playing in the background. Instead, the audience had a background shot of Zhemukhov's office.
Without this theatricality, it was hard to tell when he actually started the show. There was some confusion over the proper Zoom link, so the performance I saw started late. Zhemukhov was explaining about the problem and then launched into his show. I did not clue into that fact until about five or so minutes later when I realized, "Oh, he's well into his first story." Having something theatrical to announce the start of the performance would have eliminated that confusion.
Zhemukhov has a dry sense of humor, which would have been better served with a live audience to feed upon. As it stands right now, the show feels incomplete and in need of a director to craft Zhemukhov's material into a more satisfying and engaging experience.
While I cannot recommend this show, From Russia Without Love does a convincing job of painting a contemporary view of Russia and the high cost of living under Putin.
The Cincinnati Fringe Festival takes place June 4-19. For more information, show descriptions, a schedule and tickets, visit cincyfringe.com.