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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
But ask anyone if they've ever seen a play by Alexander Ostrovsky, and you're likely to be met with an "Alexander who?" And yet Ostrovsky (1823-1886), the author of fifty plays has remained popular in Russia through numerous regime changes. He was an innovator with tremendous impact on Russian theater. Instead of peopling his plays with counts and countesses, he presented audiences with character and situations they could identify with.
In The Forest (1870), one of the most popular of Ostovsky's many comedies, he reunited an itinerant actor down on his luck with his wealthy aunt for a comic clash between materialism and artistic values in the then rapidly changing world. It was something of a bridge between the farces favored by Gogol (i.e. The Inspector General in 1836) and the realistic plays popularized by Chekhov (starting with Ivanov in 1887). As sadness dominated Chekhov's plays enough to often call his labeling them as comedies into question, so The Forest typifies Ostrovsky as a comedic playwright who only on closer examination reveals an undercurrent of satiric pathos.
Given the Classic Stage Company's popular Chekhov productions, the time is certainly ripe to introduce audiences to the less well known Ostrovsky. The Forest, which had its first and only New York production thirteen years ago us a good choice, given that Diane Wiest, who played Madame Arkadina in the 2008 revival of The Seagull, was available to portray the self-serving, materialistic Madame Raisa Gurmyzhsky. Also available was the much applauded John Douglas Thompson (Othello The Emperor Jones) to play her very different kinsman, the actor Gennady.
Wiest, handsomely dressed by costume designer Marco Piemontese, is terrific as the cunning, woman of a certain age whose libido is anything but dormant. Thompson's Gennadi's is a delightful rascal, full of sound and fury — and underneath it all a man with a heart of gold.
Director Brian Kulick has given what was originally a 5-act play that could easily run to 3 hours a nicely streamlined production and Katherine Tolan's translation is easy on the ears. But while these assets don't come without shortcomings, who knows when The Forest will come our way again. Thus, if you're at all interested in Russian drama, you'll welcome this opportunity to see CSC's The Forest.
Thompson's Gennady and his cohort Arkady (Tony Torn as an aptly impish comic foil) are at the heart of the comedy. In order to change their luck, Gennady decides to take a detour from trekking through the provinces in hopes of borrowing money from the rich aunt Raisa (Wiest) who he hasn't seen in fifteen years. Her estate includes a large forest that she treasures but which, unlike Madame Ranevskaya of The Cherry Orchard, she's not averse to allowing Vosimbratov (Sam Tsoutsouvas), an enterprising timber merchant to gobble up lot by lot. Her motive is not need but greed and the desire to manipulate two impoverished members of her household —Aksylusha (Lisa Joyce), distant relative and Bulanov (Adam Driver), an ambitious but not too smart young peasant — into a marriage intended to keep Bulanov as her own boy toy. To complicate matters, Aksyusha loves Pyotr (Quincy Dunn-Baker), but his father, the materialistic, nouveau rich timber merchant, will not countenance a bride without a dowry for his son.
Knowing that conventional people like Raisa look down on actors, Gennady poses as an ex-army officer. But since to Ostrovsky had a lifelong love and respoect for actors, it's small wonder that Gennady is the play's hero, a man who for all his actorly gambits always does the right thing. That means every time he outsmarts his stingy aunt and separates her from some of her money, he ends up giving it away. Think of him as a Robin Hood who's also a sympathetic matchmaker.
My main problem with this production is with Mr. Kulick's and set designer Santo Loquasto's physical vision for the comings and goings of various members of this materialistic household (which includes an effective John Christopher Jones as the wily servant Karp and Lizbeth MacKay as the spying Uolita) and the neighbors who occasionally who drop in for tea and gossip about the financial and social goings on (among them a fine but under-used George Morforgen) .
Mr. Loquasto is one of New York's best and busiest and scenic designers. Actually, the way he's blanketed the CSC stage so that it evokes the leafy feel of a forest is quite impressive. However, the large moveable (and much moved) staircase that dominates everything turns out to be clunky and attention getting rather than subtle. It's a prop that's challenging for the actors to navigate. In Mr. Thompson's case it's too much of an inducement to show off his physical agility which detracts from the naturalness and authenticity of his performance.
The set does include a few naturalistic elements: a small table to hold the samovar that's indispensible to any Russian classic, and a large table set with cakes and other goodies for the neighbors' visits and Raisa's dealings with the timber merchant. It would hardly have transformed this into a kitchen sink drama if the folding chair at the foot of that table were a bit less tinny, and if a settee could have been rolled out rather than to have Raisa in one of her most petulant moments throw herself on that table as if it were a bed.
Though the plot of The Forest unfolds with broad — at times too broad— strokes of humor, it has serious underpinnings. Set nine years after the emancipation of the serfs altered the legal status of both landowner and peasant, the play points to the ways in which the wealthy still could and did manipulate the lives their servants and dependents, and that the serfs who had become rich were also manipulative and opportunistic — to wit the shrewd Vosimbratov and the young Bulanov willing to sink into the arms of the older woman who hides her lust and greed behind the pious insistence that she's dedicated to good deeds.
While Thompson's hammy tragedian does set things right for the young lovers, his triumphant exit is more darkly realistic than your average all's well that ends well comedy. He recognizes that the order of things remains more or less unchanged, that women like Raisa can marry schoolboys, that other young people will drown themselves because of the wretched lives they lead with relatives — and that the artistically inclined will continue struggle for recognition and financial security in a world ruled by the populace with a less firmly fixed moral and aesthetic compass