Art And Politics From Russia To Chile — And The U.S.
BOSTON — If you get to the theater a little early you might bump into Anton Chekhov’s widow, who’s prowling around the lip of the stage. More precisely, she’s Olga Knipper, one of the original members of Stanislavski’s Moscow Art Theatre in 1898.
More precisely still, the actress is Bianca Amato, who made last year’s “Private Lives” at the Huntington so joyful. She’s every bit as great in “Neva” at the Paramount Center’s black box theater (through Sunday), though Guillermo Calderón’s play is about as far removed from Noel Coward as you can get and it is not for everyone.
Knipper is getting ready to perform “The Cherry Orchard” and as the play begins she’s joined by two other actors, Masha (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) and Aleko (Luke Robertson). They will discuss many things in the next 80 minutes – insecurities as actors, love, sex, theater and ultimately, politics.
It’s the last item on that agenda that gives the play its juice. What right do they have to make theater — nattering on about romance, wistfulness and all that other Chekhovian yadda-yadda — when the world outside is burning? In their case, the Bloody Sunday massacre of 1905, in which protesters were trying to deliver a petition to Czar Nicholas II.
The three actors dare the audience to justify its belief that theater matters.
Obviously, we’re supposed to ask ourselves the same questions as a contemporary audience, with Olga representing something of an art-for-art’s-sake center, flanked by the Tolstoy-like Aleko with his worshipping of the simple life, and the revolutionary Masha. They all play their parts to perfection, both the fictional characters and the three actors in front of us, daring the audience to justify its belief that theater matters.
Calderón knows whereof he speaks. The Chilean playwright’s uncle was killed by Pinochet’s thugs and he and his family had to come to terms with life—and art — during wartime. Since the play has come out he has said that he needs to radicalize his art even further after seeing some former Pinochet loyalists walk away from the theater with smiles on their faces.
I think that’s the wrong message to take away. As it is “Neva” in this, its original English-speaking production, is a bold, often powerful work. It is neither kitchen-sink drama nor a dreamscape, but a work of art that creates and inhabits its own unique world. A single light illuminates the three of them inside an enclosed part of the theater, simultaneously creating a sense of claustrophobia, forced intimacy and otherworldliness.
The dialogue, meanwhile, is charged with their individual obsessions. It’s not always clear what they’re on about – or more to the point, what Calderón is on about – but there are enough hints along the way, to figure out where we’re going.
Here’s how Oskar Eustis, head of the Public Theater described it (at the 1:54 mark) when it opened in New York:
The weakness in the play is that its meditation on the nature of art and politics doesn’t give art its proper place, and Calderón should know better. If a CEO walked away from “Death of a Salesman” with a smile on his face would that make it anything less than the great, powerful, potentially transformative piece of theater it is? And if you hammered the theme home any more, wouldn’t it be a weaker piece of theater?
Olga needs to defend her art more articulately than she does here to make this more of a play and less of a meditation. Otherwise, Calderón asks the right questions and is smart enough to know that it’s not his job to give us the answers. As the first (of many, one hopes) collaborations between former Elliot Norton Award-winners Rob Orchard (ArtsEmerson) and Eustis, it’s a great start.