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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’

E-mail: SimonSaltzman@princetoninfo.com

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

Alan Ayckbourn.

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

her.

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

of Aleksey.

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

for Aksinya.

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

The Forest, New Jersey Shakespeare Festival, F.M.

Kirby Theater, Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, 973-408-5600.

$26-$34. To July 2.


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