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A CurtainUp Review

"How dare you stop the scene when the scene's just begun? The one who is mocking us is you. Do you take me for a clown? Am I your fool? How can you even think of stopping a scene when the scene's already started? A little respect, please. And not only do you disrespect me, the stage, the theater, you also disrespect your partner, who was absolutely concentrated on the scene. And then you stare at me surprised when I tell you you have no soul." — Olga, to Masha
Luke Robertson, Bianca Amato, and Quincy Tyler Bernstine. Photo credit: Carol Rosegg
In the ever-dim light of Guillermo Calderón's slight yet beautifully staged Neva, we first encounter Olga Knipper (born nearly 145 years ago), widow of the great Anton Chekov, as she melodramatically bemoans her destiny to two lesser actors who simultaneously hate and idolize her. All three await a director for a rehearsal of her late husband's The Cherry Orchard.

It's 1905 in St. Petersburg, and workers are being massacred in the streets. Yet, Olga knows nothing of that. Like a self-absorbed teen fantasizing about the gnashing of teeth at her own funeral, Olga declares that she's too fragile, too soul-sick, too oppressed to carry on. But, even though she predicts that she'll be unjustly savaged by the critics and the audience, she'll go on! Yet, Olga, played often stunningly by Bianca Amato, is much more complex than a practitioner of simple self-absorption. She knows she's self-absorbed, and even that observation bores her, so we watch her analyze herself as if in a hall of mirrors.

And what a small hall of mirrors this is! Olga and her actor colleagues, Masha (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) and Aleko (Luke Robertson) are confined to a tiny elevated stage that barely fits all three of them, and Olga is hogging the space. Calderón's Olga is in love with herself, with the very idea of herself. She's so far removed from authentic feeling that she asks Masha and Aleko to act out her husband's death for her! This is pathetic yet risible; humor in Neva is incongruous and startling. Olga and Aleko are full of themselves. Yet, there is a revolution taking place in the streets- outside of the very theater in which they indulge themselves.

As in Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit, the characters in Neva are stuck with each other. As Olga hurls insults at the under-confident Masha, Masha --who is becoming attuned to what's happening in the streets, and who has already participated, in a way, in the revolution--slowly gains her confidence by acting out scenes that dismantle her irritant, and ultimately proves herself the more authentic being. Though a bit sudden at play's end, Masha's breathless soliloquy, a tour de force from Ms. Bernstine, breaks the masturbatory orgy of the actors' self-regard. It's a solemn renunciation of her own complacency and of those who would hide their heads in the sands of theater, when they could and, in her opinion should, be out in the streets, fighting. It's not at all clear whether Mr. Calderón wholly shares Masha's passionate yet extreme viewpoint, and this ambiguity serves to fuel the play's tension.

In Neva's design, simplicity wins the day. Susan Hilferty's costuming is serviceable and plain, and Calderón and company do so much with a small light at the foot of the tiny stage that one realizes that moving theater can be made anywhere - even on a small, dim stage, behind the fragile walls of a quiet theater - even with the world that you know, or don't know, falling to pieces on the other side.
By Guillermo Calderón
Directed by Guillermo Calderón
Translated by AndreaThome
Cast: Bianca Amato (Olga Knipper), Quincy Tyler Bernstine (Masha), Luke Robertson (Aleko)
Music: Tomás González
Costume Design: Susan Hilferty
Fight Direction: Thomas Schall
Stage Manager and Fight Captain: Matthew Kurtis Lutz Production Stage Manager: Buzz Cohen
Casting: Jordan Thaler, Heidi Griffiths
Associate Artistic Director: Mandy Hackett
Associate Producer: Maria Goyanes
Running Time: 80 minutes, no intermission
The Public Theater , 425 Lafayette St., NYC,
From March 1, 2013 - March 31, 2013; Opening March 11, 2013
Performance schedule: Tuesdays (except March 12) - Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2:00 p.m. & 8:00 p.m., Sundays at 2:00 p.m. & 7:00 p.m.
Reviewed by William Coyle, based on the March 9, 2013 performance.

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