Hannah Moscovitch’s The Russian Play, which opens at the Shaw Festival this weekend, begins with the narrator, a poor flower-shop girl called Sonja, offering the audience a small piece of bread. She apologizes for the state that it’s in – the bread’s a little wet, but still edible, she assures us. When no one leaps at the offer (the dark auditorium suggests this isn’t the sort of play in which we’re meant to respond), Sonja tells us that the real subject of her story is love. But soon enough, she’s back on the bread, asking the audience whether they have any idea where a girl could possibly hide this tiny meal should her situation make that necessary. “In the shoe? Yes? In the shoe?” she baits us, her eyes wide. Her tone immediately becomes derisive. “First place they look!”
I saw The Russian Play at its world premiere at Toronto’s Rhubarb Festival in 2006 and it made a powerful impression on me. Part of this impression had to do with the revelation of where, it turns out, Sonja chooses to hide her troublesome piece of bread. We don’t find out until the end of the play, when desperate times call for commensurate measures (note: this essay contains spoilers).
Set in the USSR in the 1920s, the story satirizes the incredible bad (only Sonja’s own word for it isn’t as anodyne) luck of a young, uneducated woman trying to survive in a man’s world. It begins with 16-year-old Sonja falling in love with a gravedigger named Piotr. When she becomes pregnant, he helps her abort their fetus before returning to his wife in Moscow – a wife whose existence Sonja was unaware of. Town gossip spreads quickly; Sonja loses her job at the flower shop and is spurned by her neighbours. Unable to find work, she accepts the protection of a well-connected man, who keeps her in a hotel in exchange for some requisite favours. When a miserable Sonja threatens to leave him, he has his Politburo cronies throw her in jail. Piotr finds her starving in a cell in Moscow and gives her a piece of bread. Knowing that the bread will incriminate him, Sonja frantically tries to figure out where to hide it and ends up stuffing it inside her vagina. She dies soon after from a consequent infection (medical hindsight can infer that she developed toxic shock syndrome).
I was an unpublished writer in my mid-twenties when I saw the premiere and, at that time, thinking a lot about the ways that art could find sharp, visceral metaphors for the more nebulous, external experience of patriarchy and subjugation. I think I was genuinely startled by the spectacle of a female character offering me something wet that had been inside her body. Moscovitch had created a symbol for female misfortune that was both poetically forceful and radically impolite. Her acerbic narrator tries to find happiness in a world that will never belong to her, only to be killed, quite literally, by the most obvious symbol of her femaleness.
Moscovitch is now one of the most important playwrights in Canada and has been recognized outside the country, too, winning the prestigious Windham-Campbell literary prize in 2016, which is administered by Yale University, and nominated in 2010 for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for English-language women playwrights. But in 2006, she was an unknown writer who’d yet to have a play professionally produced. Looking back, the image of Sonja lifting her skirt to pull out a piece of damp bread from between her legs seems like a prescient introduction to Moscovitch’s career. Her female characters are frequently grappling with sex, their bodies, and society’s expectations vis-à-vis both, with a squirm-inducing humour that challenges our preconceptions of good taste. She seems to be asking: Is good taste a male construct, a luxury that women can’t afford?
Beyond The Russian Play being a thematic primer of Moscovitch’s work, it’s also a preview of her favourite theatrical structure. Her female characters like to talk to the audience. They break down the fourth wall to tell the dark secrets they refuse to tell other characters on stage – secrets about their insatiable libidos (Bunny, 2016), their unsatisfying love lives (Infinity, 2014) or their desperate attempts to control their fertility before the availability of birth control (What a Young Wife Ought to Know, 2014).
There’s nothing new about direct address in theatre but, recently, I’ve been noticing the way it can operate as a feminist device, allowing a character to express thoughts, feelings, opinions that are, perhaps, too radical or threatening to be contained inside the conventions of the rest of the play. I saw a powerful example of this in Darrah Teitel’s Behaviour, which was produced last spring by the Great Canadian Theatre Company in Ottawa/SpiderWebShow Performance and aired online via live-broadcast on March 27, a first for a Canadian theatre. The first act of the play unfolds in a largely naturalistic style, although with large leaps in time, with a young female political staffer named Mara dealing with a fractious relationship with her boyfriend, a fractious relationship with her boss and the challenges of early motherhood. But the play suddenly changes tack in Part 2, when Mara exits this defined world and gives a powerful monologue – directed at an unseen police interrogator who becomes conflated with the audience – on the “seven types of rape.”
Perhaps only one or two of her descriptions of rape would satisfy a criminal definition, but that’s what makes this monologue so fascinating. Mara is withdrawing from a legal context we recognize to express painful and confusing ambiguities which that world cannot sustain. Her rapes get at the crux of the current discourse about consent, describing rape that happens in the midst of sex, rape that happens when the victim can’t figure out how to say no, rape that’s principally psychological.
It’s a trend to consider if you get a chance to see The Russian Play this summer. Thirteen years ago, Moscovitch introduced her trademark narrator: a woman stepping forward to make the audience her confidant when no one inside her onstage world would listen. We haven’t outgrown the need for these narrators yet.
The Russian play will be presented at the Shaw Festival until October 12.
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