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Black Milk

by Rich See

I'm tired of being a bitch...I want to be human.

Holly Twyford and Matthew Montelongo
H. Twyford and M. Montelongo
(Photo: Scott Suchman)

The New Russia and what it means to be a part of a society that is simultaneously collapsing and growing is explored with remarkable cruelty and tautness in Studio Theatre's newest offering Black Milk. Continuing as part of its Russian Season, the play which was written by Vassily Sigarev follows the exploits of two "shuttle traders" (small-time opportunists) who become stranded in a tiny village in provincial Russia. The duo, played by Matthew Montelongo and Holly Twyford, are a young, married, Muscovite couple who gleefully take advantage of the uneducated rural folk. Lugging "Super Toasters" across the motherland by train, they pander the cheap household appliances for exorbitant rates to people who think the toasters are designed to make bread. Thus the duo leave behind them a trail of burned out heating elements and innocent people cajoled out of their meager savings. The piece is a sad discussion on mankind's lack of compassion towards itself and on running from one's own inner redemption and ultimate freedom when the going gets tough.

Director Serge Seiden keeps the action and energy in the play at a constant, schizophrenic swing. One minute people are screaming at each other and the next they are laughing. Pushing the theme of death within the play, his actors are engaged in a slow dance, unwittingly acting like scorpions dueling to the finish. Unfortunately, as playwright Sigarev leads us to believe, there will be no survivors.

Michael Philippi's set and lighting are wonderful reconstructions of a dilapidated train station. His final scene -- because the play ends with the set making the most dramatic finish -- is stark and lets us know that in this newly emerging Russia there is a fate worse than death and that is the death of the soul.

Alex Jaeger's costumes are a study in Russian contrasts. The young couple are emblematic of the city and the new Russia -- punked out in black garb with chains, fuschia scarves, and mohawks. The train station attendant and one of the villagers represent old school Soviet Russian. The rural townspeople look like impoverished peasants, uneducated and caught between these two opposing forces.

The cast is top notch. Holly Twyford as the momentary voice of conscience is wonderful in the role of 8-month pregnant and still smoking and drinking Shura. Her movement from caustic, demanding wife to concerned mother, and then back to uber-bitch is a sad transformation to watch.

Matthew Montelongo is hard to watch as the cruel and devoid of compassion Lyovchik. You realize he is a huckster, but it's not until the second act that you see how truly devoid of love he is at his inner core.

As vying vodka bootleggers, Anne Stone and June Hansen add a wonderful balance to the Muscovite couple. While each is taking advantage of the townspeople, neither is without a conscience. Though they try to survive in a world without imposed rules, they maintain a sense of inner dignity that the two young people are devoid of and seemingly unable to understand or grasp.

Elizabeth Stripe as Auntie Pasha is the representation of hope within the play as the mid-wife to the next generation. Truly the only redeeming character, she symbolizes a world of values and does so in a simple, good-hearted way the is contagious.

Rounding out the cast are Bob Barr as the humorous "Old Drunk," and Tobin Atkinson as Mishanya, the stuttering soldier who only gets courage when he gets drunk. As the villagers: Marynell Hinton, Morgan Peter Brown, Jeff Wisniewski, Tina Renay Fulp, and Carol Arthur all bring a deer-caught-in-headlights feeling to their roles as the unwashed and uneducated masses.

With its somewhat confusing, manic mood swings, constant four-letter word filled dialogue and bleak message of despair, Black Milk is definitely not a play for everyone. However, Studio has brought together great actors, top designers,and one of its best directors to create a highly emotionally charged piece of theatre.

Editor's Note: For another review of this play by our London critic Lizzie Loveridge, go here.

Black Milk
by Vassily Sigarev, translated by Sasha Dugdale
Directed by Serge Seiden
with Matthew Montelongo, Holly Twyford, Anne Stone, June Hansen, Tobin Atkinson, Bob Barr, Elizabeth Stripe, Marynell Hinton, Morgan Peter Brown, Jeff Wisniewski, Tina Renay Fulp, Carol Arthur
Scenery and Lighting Design: Michael Philippi
Costumes: Alex Jaeger
Sound Design: Gil Thompson
Running Time: 2 hours with one intermission
Studio Theatre, 1501 14th Street NW
Telephone: 202-332-3300
WED - SAT @8, SAT - SUN @2; SUN @7; $35-$48
Opening 01/05/05, closing 02/13/05
Reviewed by Rich See based on 01/09/05 performance
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