note: entire contents copyright 1996 by Beverly Creasey
Russian plays, like the Russian spirit, are full, effusive, and often endless. So go see Oleg Kheyfets' sumptuous production of "The Forest" performed by his Stari Theatre --- but proceed with the knowledge that it runs well over three hours. Two of the three hours will be ecstasy.
Ostrovsky's capacious comedy (which manages to be both tragic and comic) possesses a brilliant set-up. At the end of Act II you are thirsting to know if the lovers will be united; if the niece will find the money she desperately needs....or will a frightening dream play out inreality? Will there be bloodshed? Will there be a rightful inheritance? All these threads are woven skillfully and luxuriously together with all the requisite time taken to give each plot its due.
The unravelling, however, takes much too long, and some of the resolutions are ultimately unsatisfactory. And adding insult to injury (or the lack thereof), one of Chekhov's dramatic tenets --- about the presence of a firearm --- is violated. Then again, Ostrovsky was writing before Chekhov.
Nevertheless, two of the three acts are perfection, with Kheyfets' actors excelling in all three. Nver has The Performance Space been utilized so cleverly, with a windswept courtard (a minimalist design by E. Gianocostas) flanked by dramatic black curtains, and a grandstand to the side. You can feel the chill of an approaching Russian winter from the brittle leaves so meticulously strewn about.
The mistress of the estate (Anne Gottlieb) is rejuvenated by the presence of a suitor intended for her niece. Gottlieb traverses the dangerous journey from stern landowner to giddy flirt with remarkable aplomb --- and she can sing as well as she can act. The widowed aunt is forced to sell some of her forest to a shady neighbor, played like a sly fox by Peter James. (You can see the seeds of Chekhov's drama in Ostrovsky's play, which was written thirty years before "The Cherry Orchard".) Everyone except Gottlieb doubles a role, and sometimes more, often with sidesplitting consequences. James is obliged, in fact, to play a scene with himself, as a wry butler who doesn't much like James- the-neighbor. The trick is accomplished with hats.
Katrina Stevens gives an exquisite performance as a tongue-clicking crone wio spies for the widow, and she doubles as the widow's plucky niece in love with the nasty neighbor's dimwitted son. Jim Loutzenhiser portrays this reticent lad, as well as a melancholy tragedian who has come home to his aunt. The weight of the world presses on his dramatic shoulders and Loutzenhiser nails the hilarious disposition of the passionate but pompous actor. Best of all is Brad Crews as the game-faced commedian/partner/foil to Loutzenhiser's tragedian; he also plays the dashing and cunning suitor, who sets his sights first on the niece and then on her wealthy aunt. Crews electrifies the stage in every guise.
Kheyfets directs with a sure hand and a grand sense of the whimsical. With a few cuts to Act III, Kheyfets could transform his production into a masterpiece. May his Stari Theatre soon bring us more Russian delicacies.
"The Forest" (till 1 February)
THE STARI THEATRE
New Broadway Theatre, 277 Broadway, SOMERVILLE