How far will people go in the effort to survive? How can they preserve some sense of self respect and dignity in that survival? I think these are the questions underlying George F. Walker’s play Orphans for the Czar which had its world premier last night at Crow’s Theatre in a production directed by Tanja Jacobs.
It’s Russia in 1905. The Tsarist regime is tottering. The peasants are starving and the workers are on the verge of revolt. The powder keg is being further inflamed by the naive young anarchist intellectuals of the Social Revolutionaries. But all this means little in the impoverished village where the clueless but literate orphan Vasley is just about surviving despite annoying his fellow villagers to the point where he’s beaten up regularly.
Vasley is sent to St. Petersburg to the half brother/cousin of the village blacksmith who runs a bookshop specializing in subversive literature. Vasley is completely unequipped to deal with either the idealist sisters, Olga and Masha, who frequent the bookshop, or his syphilitic and cynical boss or the equally cynical head of the secret police Makarov and his brutal sidekick Sasha. When Vasley’s nemesis Yakov and the blind girl Rayisha arrive from the village just as serious fighting breaks out between the workers and the army things get really complicated. Vasley now has to decide which side he is on if, in fact, he can figure out what the sides are.
Vasley’s unwordliness is staggering; one minute he is befriending revolutionaries then working for the secret police the next, and getting beaten up for both. In a weird way he’s mentored by his cynical bookstore boss; ostensibly a revolutionary, and his equally cynical secret police boss; ostensibly a reactionary. Gradually Vasley learns to play both ends against the middle and survives the murders and arrests that follow the street violence. Perhaps he even comes to some sort of understanding of the world and his place in it.
The play is a fast paced comedy with a very dark edge. Zingy one liners and profanity are interlaced with random (extremely loud) violence and sudden death. Absurd situations, perhaps more Gogol than Gorky (on which the play is very loosely based) abound. It’s very funny in a disturbing sort of way and last night’s packed house lapped it up.
It’s all brought together by a rather good and mainly young cast. Paolo Santalucia is very effective as Vasley. He perfectly projects the kind of truly annoying naivety that gets him beaten up. Patrick McManus conveys the cynicism of the self-interested police chief most effectively while Eric Peterson doubles up as the kindly Piotr and, with some excellent physical comedy, the decrepit book shop owner. The sisters are played by Michelle Mohammed, who encapsulates Olga’s rather prissy idealism while Shauna Thompson is the bouncier, more cynical, but ultimately more effective Masha. Christopher Allen and Kyle Gatehouse play Saska and Yakov; each embodying a different version of a young man who see physical violence as the answer to everything. Shayla Brown, making her professional debut, was quite touching as the blind but stoical Rayisha.
It’s a fun evening at the theatre and quite thought provoking but were the underlying questions I posed at the beginning answered? Of course not. They never are but they don’t go away either. And that perhaps is, ultimately the point.
Photo credits: Dahlia Katz.