Russian monikers take the stage in local productions
By Leslie (Hoban) Blake
While Christopher Durang’s celebrated Broadway hit Vanya, Sonia, Masha and Spike boasts a slew of Chekov-inspired Russian monikers, there’s nary a Slav to be found in its rollicking send-up of that esteemed playwright.
But two Off-Broadway productions, Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 and Nikolai and the Others provide myriad on-stage Russians both fictional and historical. The former, a “popera,” overflows with characters based on a fragment of Tolstoy’s epic fiction novel War and Peace; the latter is peopled by a slew of famous real-life Russian émigrés, as imagined by playwright Richard Nelson, living in America in 1948, just as the Cold War was heating up.
Natasha a site specific, tuneful phantasmagoria was originally created and performed at Ars Nova – a hip, if minuscule, niteclub/theater space on West 54th St – and is currently ensconced on the outskirts of the even hipper Meat Packing district, in a mini-circus tent-cum-portable Cabaret called Kazino (pseudo Russian for Casino), built specifically to house the musical event.
A sumptuous Russian variation of the old dinner theater concept, Natasha is served with a full Russian meal from borscht to blini (plus vodka), and performed as a sung-through piece with a very helpful prologue which repeatedly names and describes each character…“Anatole is hot, Sonya is good, Natasha is young and Andrey isn’t here, etc….” The young, beautiful Natasha is sung by the young, beautiful Philippa Soo, who no sooner says adieu to her fiance, Prince Andrey (Blake DeLong), then she falls prey to the raffish ne’er-do-well, Anatole (actor/model, Lucas Steele).
The audience is surrounded by and immersed in every aspect of Natasha — it even sits at your table — and only the hardest of hearts (or those allergic to strobe lights) could fail to respond to some or all of this two and a half hour extravaganza (maybe a tad long, but between the vodka and the fun, who cares?).
Bravo to actor/composer Dave Malloy, winner of the 2012 Richard Rodgers Award, for his eclectic score (he also plays the nebbishy Pierre), to director Rachel Chavkin for her astute, sure-handed direction and clever musical staging, to Paloma Young for her evocative period costumes and to the splendid young cast of 16 who, at times, seem like thousands. Nastrovya!
In Richard Nelson’s ironically titled Nikolai and the Others 17 more Russians (and one American) fill the stage at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theater. Chief among “the Others” are the creative geniuses, George Balanchine (Michael Cerveris) and Igor Stravinsky (John Glover) gathered at Westport, CT., in 1948 for a ‘weekend in the country’ that never actually happened except in Nelson’s vivid imagination and on Masha Ginsburg’s gorgeously shabby chic country house set.
Along with the ballet master and the composer are their wives and ex-wives and numerous cousins and closest friends and creative companions — such as the titular Nikolai Nabokov (Stephen Kunken). Balanchine and Stravinsky are working on the premiere of their “Orpheus” ballet, for New York’s City Center. Nikolai, another composer, also works for radio’s “Voice of America,” but his main role in the lives of this group of émigrés is as a “fixer.”
One by one, each approaches the lanky Nikolai for a favor, while reminding him either obliquely or outright, that they no longer consider him an artist. The one American in the lot, Charles (‘Chip’) Bohlen (another real historical figure involved in this imaginary tale), turns out to be Nikolai’s contact in the newly formed CIA — the play is like an onion, just when you think it’s about artistic creation, it unpeels layers of a political thriller.
It’s not dinner theater, so the only food in Nikolai is laid out on stage by the distaff characters, looking tres soigne in their 40’s togs. These are women who support their men regardless of personal cost — such a 40‘s concept! Chief among them are Kathryn Erbe as Nikki’s first wife and Blair Brown as Vera Stravinsky, formerly married to octogenarian set designer Sergey Sudeikin. And what a joy see the always-working 88 year old Alvin Epstein in yet another fine characterization.
Fans of Michael Cerveris won’t recognize him as Balanchine, but fans of Balanchine will be astonished at how much he resembles photos of the maestro. Perhaps not for everyone, Nikolai is a thoughtful, funny, sad, beautiful evocation of another era. In the sure hands of director David Cromer and veteran costume designer Jane Greenwood, Nikolai seems like a lost Chekov or perhaps just a great new Nelson.
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