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This review by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on June 21, 2000. All rights reserved.
Review: `The Forest’
Ah, the samovar is back where it belongs, the focal
point in a Russian drawing room. If this symbol of aristocratic ritual
was nowhere to be seen in the recent McCarter Theater production of
Chekhov’s "The Cherry Orchard," it’s back onstage in the New
Jersey Shakespeare Festival’s season-opening production of Alexander
Ostrovsky’s comic masterpiece, "The Forest." Forget the heat
and humidity, and cool off in the aura of this bright and extraordinarily
funny version of the 130-year-old comedy, adapted by British playwright
Until the advent of Chekhov, Ostrovsky was recognized as Russia’s
most important playwright, and artistic director Bonnie J. Monte has
long been his champion. She opens the Shakespeare Festival’s 2000
season with the third Ostrovsky play there under her direction (preceded
by "Diary of a Scoundrel" in ’94 and "Artists and Admirers"
in ’95). Be prepared for a farcical plot brimming with familial deceits,
romantic betrayals, greed, avarice, financial double-dealings, and
abuse of power. All are scrutinized and satirized by this Russian
master of dramatic literature.
A prolific and skilled writer of more than 50 plays (he died in 1886),
Ostrovsky had a skill for exposing the underbelly of Russia’s newly
affluent society — the unsavory middle class. That two of the
most empathetic and ethical characters in "The Forest" are
a pair of vagabond actors on hard times is not insignificant given
Ostrovsky’s love of actors, particularly those of the famed Moscow
Art Theater, and the Maly Theater, Russia’s prominent actors’ theater.
"Harness your emotions," commands the play’s actor-protagonist,
Neschastlivstev, to his recently heartbroken cousin Aksinya, whom
he is enticing to join his profession. "I need all my emotions
just to get through my own life," she answers unhesitatingly,
and we laugh aloud at her wisdom considering what is going on around
Written in 1870, "The Forest" is an audacious
satire on provincial Russian life. When the play opens, Raisa (Judith
Anna Roberts), a rich widow in tight-fisted control of a vast estate,
is in the process of selling part of it to Ivan Vosmibratov (Dudley
Knight), a former serf, now a rich and successful wood merchant. She
would have everyone believe that she is doing this solely to provide
a dowry for Aksinya (Jennifer Curfman), a poor relation she has fostered
since childhood. Although Raisa has betrothed her to the handsome
but vapid Aleksey Bulanov (Tom Biglin), Aksinya is in love with Pyotr
(Greg Derelian), the merchant’s son. And Raisa has her own designs
Meanwhile, in the forest near the estate, two long-time friends and
struggling actors, Neschastlivstev (Paul Mullins), a tragedian, and
Schastlivtsev (Malcolm Tulip), a comedian, cross paths. Only desperation
has caused Neschastlivstev to return to his aunt’s estate. He convinces
the equally desperate Schastlivtsev that they will be more successful
monetarily if they passed themselves off as a gentleman and his valet.
It doesn’t take Neschastlivstev long to realize that the comfortable
and provincial world he knew as a youth has become a virtual den of
mercenary landed gentry. He resolves, with the aid of his dramatic
expertise — exploitable passages from Shakespeare and Schiller
— to expose their greed and materialism and even affect some good.
Matters grow tense and tentative when Raisa discovers her nephew’s
identity and decides to abandon the heartbroken Aksinya. As a potential
future heir to the estate, Neschastlivstev, who is the only ethical
one in the mix, manages to not only denounce the hypocrisy that he
and his friend have uncovered there but make things turn out right
In addition to the beloved samovar, other symbols of 19th-century
Russian life show up in the elegant drawing room, garden, and birch
grove designed by Charles Townsend Wittreich Jr. While Monte’s pacing
of the three-hour comedy is brisk, it drags unnecessarily during scene
shifts when the actors move the furniture. I understand the expediency
here, but the device is a yawn. Otherwise the genial tone of the staging
supports the accessibility of Ayckbourn’s hip translation that includes
such updated references as "family values," "punk,"
and "barnstorming ham."
Roberts, who has graced both previous Ostrovsky productions,
make the aging coquette, Raisa, seem almost endearingly pathetic.
No one would ever accuse Mullins of underplaying any pretense, but
his portrayal of the over-the-top tragedian is never allowed to obscure
the sincerity of his character’s honest intentions. As Mullins’ feigning
lackey, Tulip is no second banana in the comedy department, as he
ceaselessly mocks Karp (Jim Mohr), the insolent butler, and romances
Ulita (Debbie Lee Jones), the spying housekeeper.
If Ostrovsky’s plays lack the subtlety and finesse that distinguished
those by Chekhov, they are marked by their distinct lust to engage
and entertain. What a treat to have the rarely performed "The
Forest" in our midst, so beautifully staged and acted.
— Simon Saltzman
Kirby Theater, Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, 973-408-5600.
$26-$34. To July 2.
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