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A CurtainUp Review

The Viy
By Jenny Sandman

Julie Hera (left), Jeremy Schwartz, Suzanne Levinson
Julie Hera (left), Jeremy Schwartz, Suzanne Levinson (right). (Photo: Joseph Moran)

It's the rare Russian play that displays a sense of humor. Even though Gogol's stories often had a healthy dose of satire, they were known for being bleak and supernatural. Thus one certainly wouldn't expect an adaptation of one of his stoies to be funny. But The Viy, which was also the source for Mario Brava's Italian gothic horror film Black Sunday and is currently at HERE, is just that.

Gogol, one of Russia's most popular writers and playwrights, has been called the Hieronymus Bosch of Russian literature. He predated other absurdist writers like Albert Camus and Bruno Schulz. Akin to Edgar Allen Poe's, his works (among them The Inspector General and Diary of a Madman). The Viy, while marketed as a lurid vampire tale, is more comic than horrific.

Set in 16th-century Russia, the story revolves around the misadventures of Khoma Brut, a philosopher and monk. He is assigned to pray over a dead young girl for three days, and she rises each night to torment him. Things get even more comically supernatural than that. Witches, idiots, the undead, and the Viy (king of the gnomes, whose eyelids reach to the ground--and who may or may not have been completely made up by Gogol) all make appearances.

The Viy is rife with Russian folklore which is one of the reasons it's so funny. Brut himself is a bumbling oaf, more interested in drinking and whoring than philosophizing, and his love of the fair sex gets him into trouble more than once--especially when his intentions with the dead girl are called into question.

Richard Harland Smith has given us a witty and adaptation and a charismatic production. It's part Brechtian and part expressionistic, with a healthy dash of Monty Python thrown in. Using the simplest of spaces, with no adornment and only a handful of props, the large cast rotates in and out under Richard Harland Smith's nimble direction. The sensibility tends to the tongue-in-cheek. Jeremy Schwartz as Khoma Brut is hysterical (especially in a memorable scene with two chambermaids, played by Julie Hera and Suzanne Levinson). Michelle Maryk as the Dead Girl and Mikhail Pogul as the Idiot are also notable standouts though the cast as a whole is exceptional.

Smith has proven himself well up to his dual duties, giving us an an excellent adaption and pulling together this fine group of actors. It adds up to The Viy being an unexpected theatrical treat, a truly entertaining ninety minutes for a modest cost.

Written by Richard Harland Smith; adapted from the short story by Nikolai Gogol
Directed by Richard Harland Smith
With Stephen Aloi, Jamie Askew, Roy Bacon, Jeff Buckner, Tom Cappadona, Michael Cuomo, Julie Hera, Karl Jacob, Leo Jenicek, Lou Kylis, Suzanne Levinson, Michelle Maryk, John McDermott, Misha Pogul, Jeremy Schwartz, Jarrod Spector and Julie Whitney
Lighting Design by Noemi Millman
Costume Design by Lou Kylis
Set Design by Betsy Foldes and Hank Meinman
Running time: Ninety minutes with no intermission
Lightning Strikes, HERE Arts Center, 145 Sixth Avenue (Spring/Broome Sts) SmartTix 212-868-4444
From 3/17/04 through 4/10/04; opening 3/30/04
Reviewed by Jenny Sandman based on March 17th performance

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