Russian soul


The Little Tragedies


Written by Alexander Pushkin

Translated by Nancy K. Anderson

Directed by Slava Stepnov

Presented by STEPS Theatre (

Philip Coltoff Center, 219 Sullivan Street

Non-union production (closed June 23)

Review by Judd Hollander


Often lyrical and surprisingly moving (though not without a few bumps and missteps), Steps Theatre's presentation of The Little Tragedies is quite involving. Based on the poetry of Alexander Puskin, translated by Nancy K. Anderson, and mostly-well directed by Slava Stepnov, the finished result, if not always as satisfying as it could be, definitely leaves one wanting more.


Not a complete story per se, the evening is divided into four separate Pushkin tales, with its effect linked to how well one is familiar with the source material. Things start off nicely with The Miserly Knight. Here, Albert (Douglas Allen), a young knight, is angry at being denied his chance for glory and to be a presence at the Duke's court due to his lack of money, which have caused him to be unable to afford both the finer things in life and several necessities for his trade. Things have gotten so bad, Albert is reduced to taking piece of armor from those he has vanquished in battle to wear himself. All of this is due to the stinginess of his father (wonderfully played by Tyree Giroux), a former knight himself, who has turned the practice of hoarding money into an art form. When the local Jewish moneylender (Robert Pivec) is unable to advance any further capital without some sort of collateral, Albert is forced to go before the Duke (Michael McKeogh) to beg for his intercession in the matter, leading to a confrontation between father, son and those caught in the middle.


Nicely told and with powerful performances of the three leads (though the story does take a few minutes to get going), there are more than a few echoes of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice and Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta, both of which look at anti-Semitism while showing how the love of money is the root of all evil. Giroux is brilliant as the aged man obsessed with wealth (the way he talks about his fortune is almost orgasmic) and when he speculates about finding a way to keep his money out of the hands of those who do not deserve it (in his eyes) one believes he will be able to do just that. 


The actual ending to the story as shown seems a bit sudden and unsatisfying till one realizes how Pushkin is saying that we all don't always get what we want and that sometimes things are simply taken out of our hands.


The second, and most focused of the four pieces, is The Stone Guest, based on the story of Don Juan. Here we see the famous rogue (played by John Nahigian) whose eye for the ladies and habit of killing his enemies has made him both an outlaw and a folk hero. While in pursuit of his latest conquest, a widow in mourning (Giverny Petitmermet), Don Juan angers the spirit of her jealous husband which ultimately proves his undoing. 

Nahigian perfectly captures the essence of the Don Juan, combining his devil-may-care attitude and contempt for authority with a talent for fast talking, keen instincts and an underlying cruel streak.  This man has few morals but comes off as so liable he's fascinating to watch. The piece is also helped by Pivec as his sidekick, Jennifer Lee Snowden as one of his lovers and a particularly strong text. The only weak link is Petitmermet, whose performance comes off as rather wooden and one-dimensional.


Nahigian nicely switches gears from rogue to outright villain in the third piece, Mozart and Salieri, a look at the supposed relationship between composers Antonio Salieri and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. But in this case the piece should rightfully be reversely entitled Salieri and Mozart, as the former serves as both the narrator and instigator in the story. Nahigian's best moments show how from childhood Salieri led a pious life, studying music, learning its intricacies, until he was finally ready to begin composing; and how he basically went insane with rage when the young and crude Mozart appeared, having the musical genius Salieri could never hope to achieve. Angered, Salieri vowed to destroy Mozart, whom he sees as basically abusing God's by not handing it more responsibly.


McKeogh is fine as Mozart, though he's basically a reactive character in this situation. We also never really get a sense of who Mozart is, while we do get to see a three-dimensional portrayal of Salieri - who goes from ecstasy at hearing Mozart's latest work, to feeling envy, hatred and even remorse over what he decides to do. A good story, but not as well-rounded as it should be.


The final work, the most allegorical and diffuse of the evening, has the rich people of a kingdom feasting and partying while there is a deadly plague wreaking havoc just outside their doors in A Feast During The Plague. As a sort of half-hearted toast is offered to those who have perished, an angry priest (Pivec) bursts into the room accusing these people of reveling while there is so much death around them. There are some interesting themes present here, such as how can one fiddle as Rome burns, as it were; as well as the need to laugh in the face of disaster to keep one's sanity. Unfortunately, other than the host of the party (named The Chairman - again nicely played by Giroux), the only one who seems to be able to understand what the priest is saying, none of the other characters, including the priest, seem fully formed, making it hard to see just what Pushkin and director Stepnov are trying to do here.


Despite its ending on an unclear note, the entire evening is quite interesting and it makes one want to know more about Pushkin and the source material which formed the basis for these pieces, as well as an eagerness to see the next production by Steps Theatre.


Sets by Victor Pushkin and costumes by Katya Zhdanova were both good, as was the lighting design (uncredited in the program). Stepnov's direction worked well for the most part, through there should have been a clearer delineation during the transition from story to story (especially between The Miserly Knight and The Stone Guest).


Also featuring Joy Lynn Andersen.


Box Score:


Writing: 1

Directing: 1

Acting: 1

Sets: 2

Costumes: 2

Lighting/Sound: 2


Copyright 2007 Judd Hollander


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