Monday, August 26, 2019

The Russian Play: Chekhov Plus Stalin

Mike Nadajewski and Gabriella Sundar Singh in The Russian Play. (Photo: David Cooper)

 “This is Russian love story,” Sonya (Gabriella Sundar Singh) explains to the audience in The Russian Play, this year’s lunchtime one-act at the Shaw Festival. “Some parts are beautiful but mostly it is shit.” The idea at the heart of Hannah Moscovitch’s wry, surprising play is that what we think of as the archetypal Russian drama – love and melancholy leading inevitably to heartbreak, a vain struggle against fate leavened by improbable hope and seeded with existential comedy – has been transplanted to the Stalin era. (The fact that two of the four characters are named Sonya and Kostya seals the Chekhov connection.) Sonya sells flowers in a shop located on the way to the local graveyard; her lover, Piotr (Peter Fernandes), is a gravedigger. When he returns to his wife in Moscow, she moves to Smolensk, where she’s reduced to selling her blooms in the street.But she meets up with an old beau, Kostya (Mike Nadajewski), who’s become a committed Stalinist. He’s married, too, and their affair is a stormy one. Thus far the play, certainly as Diana Donnelly has directed it, is a comedy: the echoes of Chekhov and Tolstoy are treated as parody, and Singh, who is charming, uses her bright, wide eyes – the eyes of a fairy-tale innocent – for ironic effect. There’s a tonal shift when Sonya is arrested, brought to Moscow, starved and tortured.

That the shift works is a tribute as much to Singh and Donnelly as to Moscovitch. Donnelly, who is also the charismatic star of Sex, is having a hell of a season at the Shaw. The Russian Play is imaginatively staged and her work with all four of the performers is excellent, including a ferocious Marie Mahabal as the black-clad violinist who not only provides mood music – she even turns percussionist in one scene, crashing blocks around the stage of the Royal George to underscore an explosive argument between Sonya and Kostya – but is also an active participant in the dramatic proceedings. Also laudable is Gillian Gallow’s expressionistic set design, which teeters on the edge of surrealism and is enhanced by Michelle Ramsay’s lighting.

There’s one small problem that could probably be fixed with a better prop. At the beginning of the fifty-minute piece Sonya worries about how to hide an illicit slab of bread; the reference only kicks in when it’s repeated and contextualized near the end. (The play is structured as a flashback.) And at that point it becomes horrifying. But the hunk of bread is so small that you wonder why our starving heroine doesn’t just eat it.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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