The play is set on an estate in the countryside. Several people, not all of them related, live there. Feelings of unrequited love flourish. There is anxiety interspersed with gaiety, and underlying it all is the sense that this household-and the society as a whole-is about to undergo an upheaval.
Sounds like your typical Russian play, doesn't it? But then a young woman with a captivating soprano began singing the American showtune "Once Upon a Time." This is a Russian play-a dramatization of a 19th-century novel by Ivan Turgenev-but it was given anything but a typical treatment by Aleksey Burago, a theater and film director from Moscow, and Fred Pezzulli, the American playwright who adapted the novel.
Burago and Pezzulli's production of On the Eve was part drama, part concert and part storytelling. A few times in the course of the show, narration replaced dialogue to move the story along. At other times, the audience was treated to mood-enhancing music by pianist Donna Lynne Champlin and singer Sherry D. Boone, who stole the show with her beautiful voice and beguiling smile. From her post beside the piano at audience level, Boone sang several arias (including the Habanera from Carmen) and snippets of popular songs. She stepped up on stage only once, to play the small role of a fortune-teller, but the audience was riveted to her for most of the evening.
Boone was not the only aesthetically pleasing aspect of the production, however. The two young actresses Ilvi Dulack and Snezhana Chernova looked lovely and were costumed in pretty gowns (no costume designer was credited in the program). The other actors' period costumes were attractive as well, and Burago's set, featuring birch trees and a lake (!), further testified to the creative team's ingenuity. The enchanting visual and acoustic elements nearly sustained the show.
A solid effort from the cast helped too. Dulack, Hector Hill, and Virginia Roncetti had the most demanding roles, and they carried them off respectably. The play grew a little tiresome in the second act, after the novelty of the production had worn off and the tragedy began to unfold. Although the play has a political undercurrent-it takes place during the Crimean War-it is essentially a love story between Yelena (Dulack) and the revolutionary Insarov (Hill), whom she meets through Shubin (Rick Eisenberg), the artist whom her parents have supported and who is in love with her. The romance has the usual pitfalls: Yelena's wealthy parents don't approve of the penniless Insarov, he is as committed to his ideology as he is to her, his health is failing. The story of On the Eve itself is not that engrossing, but the package in which Burago wrapped it certainly was.
(Also featuring David Copeland.)
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Copyright 1998 Adrienne Onofri