THE BASICS: This gloomy little one-act Russian style love story, for three players and a violinist, was written by esteemed Canadian playwright Hannah Moscovitch in 2006. Director Diana Donnelly heads the mainly female production team. Running about 45 minutes, and without intermission, THE RUSSIAN PLAY is this year’s Lunchtime Theatre offering at the Shaw. It plays various weekdays and weekends at the Royal George Theatre in Niagara on the Lake, through October 12th. Please note: curtain time for lunchtime theatre is 11:30am.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: The action unfolds in Russian, in the 1920’s. However, Sonya, the protagonist, also “exists” in the present day, and provides narration, breaking the fourth wall, and speaking directly to the audience. RUSSIAN is a love triangle of sorts, featuring a poor flower girl, a poor gravedigger, and the well-to- do, politically connected son of an industrialist. Both men are married, as it turns out, but poor Sonya is not aware of this until it is too late. There is an unintended pregnancy, an abortion, plenty of unrequited love, and also some retribution, leading to the young woman’s imprisonment and subsequent early demise.
THE PLAY, THE PLAYERS AND THE PRODUCTION: Perhaps for fear of seeming maudlin, playwright Moscovitch plays it cerebral, adopting a dark, dry comedic tone. “Sardonic” is the perfect word for it. I did laugh out loud now and again, but I was not in the least moved.
Color-blind casting, which has now become something of a guiding principle at the Shaw, wreaks particular havoc here. As there are only three main characters, and as the play is set in Russia, and is called THE RUSSIAN PLAY, you would think that a professional (indeed world-renowned) theater company would make every effort to cast three actors who reasonably resemble Russians. Amazingly, it doesn’t happen. Gabriella Sundar Singh, while pretty, flashy and reasonably funny, just isn’t the ticket. Moreover, her accent veers toward south-of-the-border, at times. Peter Fernandes is likewise miscast as the heartthrob gravedigger Piotr, and seems to be on cruise-control throughout the show. Mike Nadajewski makes a reasonable Kostya, but gives us little of the snobbery and sense of inherent privilege that would appear to be central to the character. Violinist Marie Mahabal plays her instrument very nicely, but is basically a cipher.
One could argue that the diversity of the cast argues for the universality of what is being presented. That Russia is more of a state of mind than an actual place in this particular case. Maybe, but you are not going to get my vote.
The creative team seems intent on giving us a very “hip” production. The lean, mean set by Gillian Gallow, and lit atmospherically by Michelle Ramsay, is littered with symbolic rose-like debris that gets tossed around a fair amount. There is a weird, wordless opening sequence with Sonya and the Violinist that was obviously over my head. Also some loud, strange musical tidbits from Ryan deSouza. The costumes, especially Mr. Nadajewski’s, do give us some sense of the period, but I certainly never felt like I was back in 1920’s Russia.
With all the cleverness and modernity, the sadly human love story that is being told here really gets lost in the shuffle. I felt short-changed. Over the years, I have been a big fan of Lunchtime Theatre at the Shaw, but this one certainly left me cold. Colder than a Russian winter.
PS: I think it fair to add that I am probably filing the minority report on this show. My (spousal) companion has reminded me that THE RUSSIAN PLAY is very female-centric, and that the thoughts and emotions, especially as expressed in the modern-day narration, struck a strong chord with her. And the audience seemed to be of like mind, giving it a resounding round of applause…
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!