Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Slavs!"

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note: entire contents copyright 1998 by Larry Stark


by Tony Kushner
Directed by Jeremy McCarter

Scenic and Lighting Design by Daniel O. Scully
Costume Design by Jessica Jackson
Sound Design by Matthew Daniels
Stage Manager Mira S. Burghardt

Vassily Vorovilich Smukov.................Jim Augustine
Serge Esmereldovich Upgobkin...............Paul Siemens
Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov...Erik Amblad
Ippolite Ippopolitovich Popolitipov.......Chuck O'Toole
Katerina Serafima Gleb......................Sara Yellin
Bonfila Bezukhovna Bonch-Bruevich.....Marisa Echeverria
Mrs. Shastlivyi Domik.....................Erin Billings
Vodya Domik.............................Jessica Shapiro

"Hope is a 4 letter word"
The second half of Tony Kushner's "Slavs!" begins with that phrase being sprayed onto the tarnished steel walls of the fallen Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. This increasingly biting elegy for the Communist experiment begins in bombast and rhetorical blather, has prayers answered by the ikon of a 16th century Orthodox saint with Lenin's face painted over it, yet ends with a harsh diamond of "maybe" gleaming under the glowing ashes of atomic accidents and bureaucratic helplessness. But, lest smug Americans gloat in their victory, this bell tolls for thee as well.

Three of the four actors playing bored Party stalwarts in act one here (Jim Augustine, Paul Siemens & Erik Amblad) honed their gifts for farce in "Lend Me A Tenor" for the Harvard-Radcliffe Summer Theater earlier this season, and all put that experience to good use here. The script calls for the two oldest Socialists to keel over dead arguing whether people would rather die than change, or perhaps change than die, leaving their peers squabbling as to whether their ideas caused them heart-failure or their emotions caused them cerebral haemorrhages. For all of them, arguing is preferable to doing anything. They are members of the Politburo, of course --- not our Congress.

Act two takes place in a scientific institute where all the brains of heroic (dead) Soviets are kept in jars, watched over by Sara Yellin as an indifferent, acid-tongued young lesbian wooed by Chuck O'Toole's stubbornly smitten aparatchik. Marisa Echeverria plays the swing role of a hesitantly lesbian doctor specializing in children's cancers, who convinces her lover to pray to that ikon. It is at her entrance that the play begins to turn from frothy farce toward reality-edged social satire.

For act three, Matthew Johnson plays a do-nothing health official visiting the doctor in exile in Siberia. Her patient is an eight-year-old dying of radiation-induced nerve cancer (Jessica Shapiro) who cannot speak and might not even think. Erin Billings plays her mother, who bitterly catalogs the sins of Soviet bureaucracy while the doctor catalogs the pollution of the Soviet atomic industry. The official's personal solution for everything turns out to be another Man on Horseback to lead his country back to greatness.

The slow, subtle changes in tone here are beautifully modulated by director Jeremy McCarter, whose experienced cast --- and a great crew led by scenic & lighting designer Daniel O. Scully --- leads the audience from jeers at the silly Soviets to a final, human awareness that, four letter word or not, hope is all we have.


"Slavs!" (till 22 August)
Loeb Ex, 64 Brattle Street, CAMBRIDGE

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide