When a play is based on a Turgenev story, and set in "The wretched winter of 1850 in St. Petersburg," and dialog points out that dogs are freezing to death on the streets, you know you're in for a depressing ride. The Smatter Theatre Ensemble's The Journey of the Fifth Horse is absolutely agonizing to watch... but in a GOOD way.
It was originally produced in 1965 and starred Dustin Hoffman in an Obie Award-winning role. The story was adapted by Ronald Ribman from Ivan Turgenev's short story "The Diary of a Superfluous man," and it is oh-so-19th-century Russian. Ribman's play is about Zoditch (Dan Patrick Brady), an unappreciated clerk at a publishing house who is given the chore of reading a dead man's diary. The dead man, Chulkaturin (Ledger Free), tells a heart-crushing tale of unrequited love and a pointless existence. Both the writer and Zoditch, the reader, are ultimately revealed to be superfluous men, as useless as a fifth horse hitched to coach that only needs four. Both men struggle futilely to find meaning to their lives, and both fail. The ending isn't a happy one, and Zoditch himself concludes the play by wailing about the unfairness of his own story.
The play swings back and forth from Zoditch's present to the past when Chulkaturin writes on his deathbead, and to the events recounted in the diary. Director Christina Cass presented these changes in time and place so fluidly that there was never a moment of doubt as to where and when any given scene is set. Cass also kept the depressing action moving forward, fast as a whip lashing her tortured characters on toward their denouement.
Bradley made a wretchedly sympathetic protagonist as Zoditch, and Ledger Free was heart-wrenchingly pathetic as Chulkaturin. A universally fine cast supported Ledger and Brady, most of them double-cast as different characters in Zoditch's time and Chulkaturin's. The towering Duke York, in particular, was excellently cast as two different bullies who humiliate both of the play's protagonists.
The show was presented in period costumes designed by Kristina Angelozzi. Angelozzi's extravagant costumes included ball gowns, military uniforms, period-appropriate lingerie, and humble rags worn by the show's downtrodden characters. With fourteen actors playing multiple roles, keeping them distinct was quite an accomplishment.
An equally extravagant set, by Kevin Landon Raper, complemented the gorgeous costuming. The walls of the set were composed of scrims, which were frequently backlit to allow the shadows of offstage characters to appear, but sometimes allowing the shadows of the past to interact with those who remember them. The lighting for these scrims was provided by Joe Novak, who found many other creative and effective ways to incorporate his lighting into the set, including a red glow to simulate a coal stove, with blue lights providing a shadowy counterpart to the stove light.
In a city bloated with Off-Off Broadway theatre companies, The Smatter Ensemble and this deliciously depressing play are anything but superfluous.
(Also featuring Denise Demirjian, Jonas Gabriel, Kim Clay, Eric C. Dente, Deirdre Brennan, Daniel H. Hicks, Howard Green, Jennifer J. Katz, Lou Tally, Asta Hansen, and Michael Boothroyd.)
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Copyright 2003 Charles Battersby