- Title: The Russian Play
- Written by: Hannah Moscovitch
- Director: Diana Donnelly
- Actors: Gabriella Sundar Singh
- Company: Shaw Festival
- Venue: Royal George Theatre
- City: Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
- Year: Runs to Oct. 12, 2019
The Russian Play is not only long-time Shaw Festival ensemble member Diana Donnelly’s directorial debut at the Niagara-on-the-Lake repertory theatre company, it’s her professional directorial debut altogether.
If you’re like me, then you’ve got your back up already.
This country, for some reason, still doesn’t take stage direction as an art form all that seriously – and Ontario’s repertory theatres can be the worst offenders.
Their leaders have had a tendency to go on about how much training and practice it takes to properly speak the words of Shakespeare or Shaw. Actors who have gone to perfectly decent theatre schools then have to put in time building up their classical-theatre muscles at one or another of the “conservatories” or “academies” of these august institutions.
When a beloved ensemble member wants to direct, however? Sure, have a go! No professional experience necessary to helm a production at this – the brochure says here – world-class theatre company.
Okay, that’s the end of my rant. And, while I stand by it in theory, I’ve got to swallow my words this time around.
Because, in her directorial debut, Donnelly works the stage at the Royal George Theatre better than most long-time pros. She has a strong vision for The Russian Play and executes it with style and skill.
Flowers swirl around the stage like blowing snow, falling into drifts. A chandelier in an early scene is replaced by a hanging interrogation light as the play darkens in tone – and both props are used in literal and metaphorical ways, brilliantly. And the music of Pussy Riot is blasted to excellent anachronistic effect.
There are a dozen moments where Donnelly and her designers (Gillian Gallow, sets and costumes; Michelle Ramsay, lighting) have found clever or poignant images to intersect with and expand this short, simple play by Hannah Moscovitch.
First produced in 2006, The Russian Play was one of the one-acts with which Moscovitch burst onto the scene. She’s since become one of the most produced playwrights in Canada – with her biggest hit, the musical Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story, now in the middle of a much acclaimed international tour.
Set in the 1920s as Stalin was coming to power, The Russian Play is written in the form that would become Moscovitch’s signature – a confrontational monologue that occasionally opens up into short, succinct scenes involving other actors.
Sonya (Gabriella Sundar Singh), wearing a ragged skirt and holding a chunk of bread, speaks directly to the audience of today in a Russian accent. “I see what you are thinking,” she says. “You are thinking this is Russian play, you are thinking Chekhov, Tolstoy, so boring.”
Not to worry, Sonya continues: “Let me assure to you that I am wanting for your amusement, and also your illumination on many subjects. But mostly on the subject of love.”
Sonya’s love story of sorts begins when she is a 16-year-old working in a flower shop and meets a singing gravedigger named Piotr (Peter Fernandes). Later, Kostya (Mike Nadajewski), the rich son of a kulak, comes into the picture.
There is sex and vodka, a yearning to move to Moscow under much more disturbing circumstances than those in Three Sisters, and that chunk of bread from the first scene eventually returns in an upsetting way that may convince you to go gluten-free. (You’ve heard of Chekhov’s gun? This is Moscovitch’s bun.)
It’s hard to say much more about The Russian Play without spoiling it. Indeed, it can feel like the Coles Notes for a Russian novel – the plot moving fast and furiously and not particularly fleshed out.
The play is not as deeply rooted in history as some of Moscovitch’s later work, either – and its aims can seem unfocused. Is this a feminist play about Stalinism – or about Western ideas about Russia? Or is it about literature, Russian or otherwise, and certain romantic tropes surrounding female characters?
There’s a lot of room for a director to jump in, and Donnelly does so with both feet. The fourth character is a violinist – and she has cast a woman (Marie Mahabal) rather than a man (as in the original productions). The violinist becomes a shadow version of Sonya – and an out-of-body double to observe from a distance when Sonya revisits her story’s more traumatic turns. In her modern dress, she’s also a link to present-day Russia. (I believe the mentions of Putin and his macho authoritarianism are new to this production.)
As Sonya, Singh nails the sharp shifts in tone of her monologue fantastically. She moves from dead-eyed irony to full-blooded idealism in an instant; she can do sexy one moment, then deconstruct sexy the next. And when the play calls for love, she gives it to us: deep and resonant.
But as Donnelly writes in her director’s note: “Love saves us, but, for Sonya, love is the Great Terror.”
A smart director’s note in addition to a smart professional directorial debut? I’ll zip my lips going forward.