Maxim Gorky was the preeminent advocate of critical realism in
Russian literature, a political revolutionary, and ultimately
one of Russia's most celebrated authors. He devoted his attention
to the lives of the underclasses (a radical idea for its time)
as they faced the transition to a new, more complex "modern"
world that was moving irrevocably toward revolution. In his play
The Zykovs, he exposes the rift between generations - and
between the sexes - on the cusp of one of the 20th century's most
resonant social upheavals, the 1917 Russian Revolution.
Written in 1913, The Zykovs concerns Antipa Zykov, a self-made timber merchant. Antipa, along with his son Misha, lives with his sister Sophia, who married into the land-owning nobility but was left widowed and childless within six years. Misha is engaged to the beautiful but somewhat naive Pavla. Wanting Pavla for himself, Antipa breaks his son's engagement and marries her, with predictably devastating results for all concerned. At times, all of the hand-wringing resembles nothing more than a middle-class Uncle Vanya, Gorky's usually political voice unusually muted by the soap-opera machinations.
But if Gorky's script lacks the trenchant incisiveness of his better-known masterpiece, The Lower Depths, theater et al's production, under Brian Rogers's direction, was nevertheless exemplary. The award-winning company adapted Alexander Bakshy's translation to suit their own strikingly visual ensemble approach to theatre, and if at times Rogers's highly stylized production pushed right to the brink of inventive pretension, he smartly never crossed that line that would have sent it into the realm of overwrought theatricality. Performed in what has to be the smallest theatre space in Manhattan (only 16 seats), nothing was overplayed, and nearly everything was monochromatic. Yet by reveling in each subtle revelation, the intimacy of the white-on-white production (beautifully designed by Rogers with Dina Gjertsen) was more intense, and ultimately more harrowing, than any evening of histrionic pyrotechnics could have been.
Particularly outstanding was the coolly passionate Sheila Lewandowsky as Sophia, the play's moral center. She did much by doing very little, just a flick of her eyes exposing the dark forces gnawing at Sophia's frustrated soul. Equally impressive were Chip Washington, playing both of Sophia's would-be lovers, and Dacyl Acevedo, graceful in the stock role of Pavla's ineffectual mother. The rest of the ensemble, which was admittedly uneven, at least played their individual strengths to maximum effect, helping to give the evening a hypnotically unified precision.
Since its formation in 1996, theater et al has been devoted to the creation of bold examinations of lesser-known classical texts with a modern perspective and without the benefit - or burden - of great material advantage. Visually stunning and beautifully performed, their production of The Zykovs was 90 minutes of pure theatre that, even though it didn't reveal an under-appreciated masterwork, absolutely made a compelling case for this ambitious company's raison d'être.
(Also featuring Richard Aviles, Deborah Blossom, David Green, and Felice Yeh.)
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Copyright 2000 Doug DeVita