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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Luke Robertson, Bianca Amato, and Quincy Tyler Bernstine.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

For all the fretting about emotional clarity it contains, one can't help but wish that Neva contained a bit more of it. This oddly dramatic comedy (or is it an oddly comedic drama?) at The Public Theater, written and directed by acclaimed Chilean playwright Guillermo Calderón, thrives instead on misdirection of every imaginable sort—and only intermittently benefits from the myriad ruses it employs. Ceaselessly engaging though this 80-minute outing might be, it doesn't grab your heart to a degree you believe the figures onstage would find acceptable.

Not that such a thing may be possible in any event. After all, its characters are Olga Knipper (Bianca Amato) and her two Moscow Art Theatre colleagues, Aleko (Luke Robertson) and Masha (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), marking through a rehearsal in a St. Petersburg performance space nearly six months after the death of Olga's esteemed husband, Anton Chekhov. On second thought, perhaps they're not actually rehearsing—but rather rehearsing a rehearsal, to follow through with the real thing at some later point? Or could they in fact be rehearsing the Russian Revolution, even though that doesn't begin performances for another dozen years?

You could make a solid case for any of these scenarios, and plenty more (that they aren't rehearsing anything, and aren't in any theater at all, is another that flashed into my mind at several points). But if what exactly is going on here is not easy to pin down, neither is it particularly relevant. What matters most is the quest for truth that drives each of these people, often to (or beyond) the point of insanity. Olga, wading through a speech from The Cherry Orchard at the top of the show, is convinced she's lost her ability to feel—and thus any right to appear onstage. If Olga is incapable of living up to her own standards, Masha can't even come close—the way she speaks short lines or words, or even coughs, convinces Olga that Masha should not even be in her presence. Aleko, the trusted and talented, though variable, functionary who invited Olga to perform with his company, is caught somewhere between the two.

They start by practicing crucial scenes from Chekhov's plays, and then slowly melt into recreating (or imagining) scenes from his life, and then theirs. With every development and iteration, they stray further and further from the provable, dropping into lengthy monologues that may or may not be either scripted or windows into their own psyches. Before long, you can no longer discern what their reality is—assuming they even have one—and you've lost all confidence that they are able to do so, either. By the final scene, when death threatens to swallow up one character and apparently reverses course completely with another, you'll be well beyond the point of identifying the boundary (if any) between the factual universe and the cosmos of the theatre they're crafting.

What's missing, however, is a stronger impetus for addressing that remarkable question. As a writer, Calderón displays a stunning flair for piercing comedy that leaves shrapnel of uncertainty in your mind, but he does not establish the iron-clad connections you want to see between this trio's struggles and the outside world they're trying so desperately to ignore. (The title derives, in large part, from the name of the river flowing just outside the theater's doors.) As a director, Calderón makes becoming intimately involved with—or interested in—this group's troubles in a human sense even more difficult. By staging the entire show on a high, raised platform, with only a single footlight shining on the actors, Calderón doesn't just dial up the pretension to 10, he also ensures you can rarely see the performers and thus absorb what they're saying.

So in spite of the bracingly stark staging, and despite the spark-filled dialogue, what haunts you most is a series of individual images that fail to resolve into a continuous motion picture. The shadows all three cast on the rear wall of the theater, the way Olga adjusts the lamp to shroud Masha in the darkness she's convinced the girl deserves, the way a simple twisting of the lighting instrument can suggest either the ravage of disease or the recovery from it, or how by spinning it in a direction previously thought impossible a ghost may be summoned before the audience's eyes—these moments stick with you. The characters' various mutterings about their lives, onstage and off, and the art they're pursuing, though often buoyant in the moment, never do.

It should be noted that this is not the fault of the actors. Though Bernstine's impetuous whine goes tired after a while, and is successful only on the surface at communicating Masha's youth and idealism, it works well enough. And the others do noticeably better than that: Operating in unabashed oversize tragedy mode, Amato conveys the complicated depths of a woman who lost her artist but is desperate to hang on to her art, and makes total sense of Olga's oscillating between dry disaffection, denial, and despair; and Robertson brings a stolid heat and a committed passion to a role that could easily be nothing more than a go-between serving dueling mistresses of the Ultimate Magic and the Ultimate Mundane.

As it is, the evening itself is full of both magic and mundane qualities, captivating even as it confuses and fascinating even as it frustrates. Exploring how Chekhov's consummate weaving of concerns artistic and political reflected back on the people who brought his words to life and world prominence is a powerful idea, and one that could resolve into a thrilling play. But Chekhov only made such achievements look easy—attaining the same goal, even if you have his works as a launching pad, is considerably more difficult. Calderón has done much right, but he's not quite there yet.

Through March 31
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
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