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A CurtainUp Review
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.
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