Veering from realism to surrealism, Studio Six's new translation and production of Viktoria Nikiforova's "Hidden Fees*" sets out to provide a glimpse of contemporary Russia but ultimately falls short.
By CHRISTOPHER SILSBY
Money is power. Time is money. Money is the root of all evil that makes the world go round. These clichés have been the basis for plays from Shakespeare to Gorky, from Ostrovsky to Brecht, from Chekhov to Mamet. Those who have the gold make the unreasonable and unbreakable rules in Faustian contracts with our sympathetic and downtrodden heroes. Viktoria Nikiforova’s addition to this genre attempts to show the effect of rampant capitalism on a twenty-first century Moscow with its widening chasm between the ultrawealthy “oligarchs” and a debt-ridden middle-class.
In traditional Fringe style, the set must be quick to strike. The bare brick walls of the Cherry Lane theater provide a nice base background for the multiple, fast changing locations demanded by the script. The playing space is delineated by a solid white square mat on the floor and a movable dividing wall. A projection screen provides photographs to indicate the location of each scene including an office cubicle farm, a middle class Russian walkup, and restaurants as well as visual commentary on the stage action. In a distinctively Ikea-infused adaptation of standard black stage cubes, rolling end tables transform into a bank office desk with the addition of a table top or into a supermarket cashier’s stand when arranged in an L and topped with a register.
|HIDDEN FEES* (A PLAY ABOUT MONEY)|
|Written by: Viktoria Nikiforova, translated by Studio Six.|
Directed by: Raphael Schklowsky.
Cast: Matt Raines, Nicole Kontolefa, Vadim Kroll, Karen Tararache, Dominic Tancredi, Vasanth Santosham, Jill Dion, Bujan Rugova, Alesia Georgiou.
Set design by: Peiyi Wong.
Costumes by: Dasha Martikainen.
Lighting design by: David Bengali.
Projection design by: David Bengali.
Related links: Official site
|Cherry Lane Theatre|
38 Commerce St., off 7th Ave. So.
Fringe Festival 2008, Aug. 8-24, 2008
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A constellation of characters from across Moscow’s pay scale circles Vasya and Liza, a brother and sister living together in a medium-sized apartment. Each character, from the lascivious bank middle manager to the prostitute (a requisite character in any play of this genre) is shown as both trapped by and dependent upon the endless cycle of debt and exploitation. Every decision, no matter how personal, is made only after extensive financial calculations.
Despite this emphasis on cold numbers, some of the most genuinely human moments in this play occur when Vasya (Matt Raines) the computer salesman and Zhenya (Karen Tararache) the bank employee in charge of his loan account turn these calculations into flirtatious games.
| ||The actors of Studio Six studied together at the Moscow Art Theatre School. This lends a certain cachet to their productions of Russian classics and should provide a sense of ensemble. Rather than an ensemble, however, Studio Six seems to perform as a loose collection of individuals.|
One of the best scenes occurs when the oligarch Pavel Petrovich played perfectly by Vadim Kroll with a blend of intimidation and measured hedonism appears at the apartment for a night of drinking in Vasya’s humble apartment. Naturalistically portrayed, yet surreal in the way that a drunken stupor partially breaks down the walls of logic, Pavel Petrovich speaks in a blend of religious, mystical, and business imagery. In a world where priests accept monetary penance for absolution, morality is just another account into which the wealthy can transfer funds.
As if the inclusion of a scene with a prostitute wasn’t obvious enough, Pavel Petrovich expressly states that a market economy makes us all sell ourselves. However, just as it seems the play is completely lost to this cliché of anti-capitalist narratives, Pavel Petrovich extends this prostitute analogy to the religious sphere. Since we are created in God’s image, when we sell ourselves, we sell Him.
In a further break with naturalism, Jesus steps down from an icon in Pavel Petrovich’s office/judo dojo and speaks directly to the audience about the lack of morals in contemporary society, eventually giving up and telling us, “Figure it out yourselves without me!” He returns for one last attempt to save the situation, but confesses that he is tired, and blames the audience for letting all of this happen.
Any remaining semblance of fourth-wall naturalism completely disintegrates during a dream sequence wherein an unborn child wildly calculates the spiraling costs of raising a child, leaving Liza cradling an oversized calculator.
The actors of Studio Six studied together at the Moscow Art Theatre School. This lends a certain cachet to their productions of Russian classics and should provide a sense of ensemble. This production highlights the group’s training in bodily coordination with virtuoso displays of physical prowess by Dominic Tancredi as a judo sparring partner tossed about the stage and by Bujan Rugova as a surreal unborn, yet fully grown child. More subtle physical control in the embodiment of character is shown by Vadim Kroll, as Pavel Petrovich, and Vasanth Santosham, as Jesus Christ. Matt Raines, Nicole Kontolefa, and Karen Tararache play the roles of the middle-class victims with sympathy and compassion, but without overstepping into cloying pathos.
Rather than an ensemble, however, Studio Six seems to perform as a loose collection of individuals. Perhaps this lack of cohesion is due to the script’s emphasis on isolation and one-upmanship. Inconsistent accents and background action that distract from the dialogue seem symptomatic of a lack of cohesive vision for the production. Kroll employs a perfect Russian accent as the businessman with ties to government but, strangely, none of the other actors all of whom portray Muscovites perform Russian accents. Jill Dion even makes her prostitute Amanda sound as if she were from New Jersey. Since this sets Kroll’s ultra-wealthy character apart from those surrounding him, this is arguably justifiable. However, the discrepancy is exacerbated when some actors pronounce characters names with very distinct American accents and other actors use Russian diction.
|Some minor characters feel too much like stereotypes, such as a limp-wristed, effete hairdresser.|| |
Some minor characters feel too much like stereotypes, such as Tancredi’s limp-wristed effete hairdresser who unfortunately upstages Alesia Georgiou’s turn as a prostitute-sage dispensing moneymaking advice to her colleague. At other times, however, the nonspeaking characters are believable and engaging without upstaging the main action, including Shantosham’s multiple roles as the silently destitute who may or may not be manifestations of Jesus and a scene in a supermarket that uses every available actor and seems to have a crowd twice as large as the cast.
While the message of this play is nothing new, the scope attempting to draw parallels between everything from the costs of birth to the deaths in the school siege in Beslan is slightly overambitious for such a short Fringe show. Nonetheless, Studio Six proves their Moscow Art Theatre training is applicable to more than classics of the Russian stage in their wonderful blend of naturalistic and surreal acting.
|AUGUST 16, 2008|
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