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.