Tuesday, July 31, 2012

‘Black Milk’: From Russia with Loathing

Move over, Chekhov.  There’s another Russian playwright in town. 

His name is Vassily Sigarev, and, at the tender age of 35, he is raising a lot of ruckus in Europe (and picking up admirers like Tom Stoppard along the way) for his brutal plays about the brutality of life in post-Soviet Russia. 

If you have seen one or both of the well-received productions of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya (the Sydney Theater Company’s version which just closed at City Center and the still-running and all-but-sold-out production at the Soho Rep), you may be interested in expanding your horizons by going to see Sigarev’s Black Milk, a nasty little taste of home-brewed vodka that is on display at the 13th Street Theatre. 

I’ve got to warn you, though, that this production is considerably overwrought and pretty much unrelenting in its foul-mouthed, rage-filled portrayal of the ugly side of life.  Chances are you are not going to enjoy it much, but you still might want to go just to get a sense of this rising star of a writer, whom Stoppard has likened to Dostoevsky and in whose work I saw more than a few hints of Chekhov himself, even if they are nearly lost under the heavy-handed direction of Michel Hausmann. 

Hausmann, who is a theatrical director in his native Venezuela, recently came to Sigarev’s work as a graduate student in directing at Columbia University.  This does have the feel of an exuberant student production, in which every outrageous moment is exploited to its fullest.  Unfortunately, the play’s not inconsiderable humor—and thus its balance—is virtually lost.

Black Milk centers its tale on a married couple, a pair of hustlers from the big city who have descended on a backwater town in the middle of nowhere in order to fleece the gullible locals by selling them electrical appliances (in this case toasters, a nod, perhaps, to the toaster thief in Sam Shepherd’s True West) that they neither need nor can afford.   The action takes place in a shabby train station, where the pair, Lyovchik and his very pregnant chain-smoking, vodka-swilling wife Poppet, are forced to wait for the rare passenger train to come along so they can escape back to “civilization.” 

In the right hands, Lyovchik and Poppet could be viewed as distorted, foul-mouthed versions of Didi and Gogo from Waiting for Godot.  But here, as directed by Mr. Hausmann and portrayed by Josh Marcantel and Liba Vaynberg, they start out as shrill and vicious and get increasingly so as the play progresses, save for an interlude during Act II in which Poppet decides she is “tired of being bitch” and wants to give up their world where it is “trendy to be hateful.”  (Not to worry though; with some ugly prodding from her husband, she gets over it.)

The comic moments, such as they exist, come from some of the other characters in the play:  the vodka brewing ticket agent (Anna Wilson); the town’s own homegrown hustler and rival vodka seller (Emily Ward); and a madman of a townie (John Brambery) who comes tearing after Lyovchik and Poppet with a shotgun, wearing only a flapping jacket that fails even remotely to cover up the fact that he is naked. 
That encounter, which everyone survives owing to the fact that the shotgun is loaded with blanks, is enough to send Poppet into labor. 

It is during the interlude, in which the kind-hearted if overbearing Auntie Pasha (Rachel Murdy) cares for Poppet through the birth and postpartum period, that Poppet “finds God” and decides she wants to stay—a suggestion that does not sit well with the scornful Lyovchik, who reminds his wife of the power he has over her (she is called “Poppet,” after all).   And so it’s back to the big city.  Good riddance!

So what to make of all of this unpleasantness?  I still say there is a lot of Chekhov to be found in Black Milk. There’s the clash that occurs when city dwellers and country folk come together, the tension between religion and atheism, and even the gun-toting madman—who, save for the gun toter’s state of undress, comes straight out of Uncle Vanya

Some of this is potentially quite funny, something the Sydney Theatre Company played up royally (perhaps overplayed to the point of slapstick; balance, please!) in its production of Uncle Vanya.  There is a line in that production, in which the nanny reacts to all the brouhaha:  “All that shooting and shouting.  It’s something for the stage.”  

Indeed it is, which is why I think Vassily Sigarev is on to something that is worth cultivating.  Meanwhile, Black Milk is the only production of his work in town, which alone makes it worth the visit.

If you crave more of ProfMiller, check out the column, ProfMiller@The Theater, at BroadwayShowBiz.com.  Recent reviews include "How Deep Is The Ocean?," "Triassic Parq The Musical," and "Closer Than Ever." 

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