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|A CurtainUp Review
With Chekhov revivals opening up all over town, the Pearl Theater is to be commended for bringing another Russian playwright, Alexander Ostrovsky, to the New York stage. Ostrovsky, (1823-86) had an enormous impact on Russian drama. Some of his plays were originally banned by the Czar, but many, including The Forest (1870), have remained popular on his country's stage through numerous changes of the Soviet guard. Yet, American audiences have had little exposure to Ostrovsky and the Pearl's first-ever-in-New York production of The Forest is a not to be missed opportunity for anyone interested in Russian drama. It's also a lot of fun, with plenty of easily accessible laughs and enough good acting and production values to almost warrant the three hour running time.
At the heart of the comedy are two down-on-their-luck itinerant actors, one of whom decides to take a detour from trekking through the provinces in hopes of borrowing money from a rich aunt whose estate includes a large forest she loves because "what's an estate without a forest?" but is nevertheless allowing an ambitious peasant to gobble up lot by lot. Unlike the financially strapped landowner of The Cherry Orchard, however, the owner of this estate is motivated by greed rather than need. She's also stingy and, though a woman of an uncertain age (50 or more), entertains romantic aspirations. To thicken the plot we have two star-crossed young lovers, kept from finding happiness by their greedy and controlling elders; a peasant who rises to his betters' level of avarice; wily and wise servants; and neighbors who arrive at the estate periodically to put in their two cents about the various romantic and financial entanglements.
Before I get into how this comedy plays out on the Pearl's stage, a bit of background about the playwright. Born to an upwardly mobile family, but not of the nobility, he was well acquainted with the social conditions of the rising class he often satirized. As director Shepard Sobel explains in the informative "Playgoer's Supplement' the Pearl publishes to go with each production, "if Gogol wrote farce (i.e. The Inspector General , 1836) and Chekhov wrote realism (ed. note: beginning with Ivanov in 1887), then Ostrovsky built the bridge." In The Forest we have a chance to get a clear view of how that bridge connects the farcical and the realistic elements in the other dramatist's work. While the story unfolds with broad strokes of humor, when all is said and done The Forest is not an all's well-that-ends-well comedy and on closer examination reveals an undercurrent of pathos and satire.
Unlike the company's last production, Hard Times, ( our review), which used four actors to play nineteen characters, director Sobel has here treated himself to a cast of 11 actors, each with a sad but funny story to tell. Richard Thompson, as an always on hammy tragedian, (or as he puts it an "out of fashion howler") and Bradford Cover as his long-suffering sidekick who's "all for rich people" are particularly good. Actors anywhere and at any time can identify with their struggle for recognition and financial security in a world ruled by a less artistically inclined upwardly mobile populace. Thompson's Gennady Demyanych Neschastlivtsev is delightfully grandiose (à la John Barrymore) and ridiculous. His extravagant insults, (i.e. "be quiet you multiplication table!"), and putdowns, ("Are you this stupid from birth, or did this happen to you overnight?"), drew consistent roars of laughter from the opening night audience.
But Thompson's tour-de-force comes in the finale when he fully reveals the shrewdness lurking underneath the fool and the heart of gold beating beneath his shabby coat. His speeches are abetted throughout by lines from great playwrights of the past-- especially the "okayed by the censor" quotes from Schiller ("We are actors -- you are comedians. . . you are born crocodiles!"). Mr. Cover, who gets some of the evening's best lines, is the perfect foil. His temporary stint as an Italian is hilarious.
Carol Schultz is not quite as consistent as the aggressive and self-delusionary Raisa Pavlovna Gurmyzhskaya whose romantic feelings focus on a compromiser (Christopher Moore) willing to sink into the most richly feathered bed available and whose mean-spirited nature belies her pious insistence that she's dedicated to good deeds and "only the cashier of my money."
The rest of the ensemble performs with varying degrees of comedic and emotional skills. Joe Palmieri is fine as the all-knowing servant who has learned to live with a mistress who "changes her mind every Friday" and who has "seven Fridays in her week." Max Jacobs delivers just the right touch of dry humor to his neighborly commentaries..
The play's five acts are divided into three parts. The first two acts tend to be somewhat weighted down by the lengthy discussions. The pace picks up steam during acts three and four. The last act is the evening's crowning glory.
Beowulf Boritt's red and black set serve the play well. The curtained backdrop, like the ropes and pulleys in the previous production of Hard Times, does yoeman's duty as entrances, exits and glimpses of hallways. With an assist from Stephen Petrilli's lighting the pulled-back draperies even evoke the aura of the forest which figures as importantly as the orchard in Chekhov's Cherry Orchard (recently revived by the visiting Moscow Sovremennik Theatre Company--our review). The costumes, also designed by Boritt, stand out well against the color of the set and seem made for the characters who wear them.
Perhaps now that the Pearl has opened its doors to this late play of the prolific playwright, Mr. Sobel or some other artistic director will consider bringing over what many Russians consider his shrewdest and probably most popular play, Enough Stupidity In Every Wise Man which was written two years before The Forest.