Theater review by Adam Feldman. Public Theater (Off Broadway). By Guillermo Calderón. Dir. Calderón. With Bianca Amato, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Luke Robertson. 1hr 20mins. No intermission.
“It’s already 1905 and I believe that theater is finished,” declares a seething actress in Neva, which both makes her case and proves her wrong. Set six months after the death of Anton Chekhov, the play is strikingly stark by design: Its three actors are confined to a tiny elevated stage, lit only by a single high-voltage space heater; their set is a chair and a patch of blood-red carpet. As Neva begins, Chekhov’s widow, the German actress Olga Knipper (a mercurial Amato), is running lines from The Cherry Orchard. Insecure in playing a role her husband wrote, the volatile Olga at least excels at self-dramatization, and at pulling others into her script. Soon she cajoles two of her costars—the highborn Aleko (Robertson) and the lowly Masha (Bernstine)—into reenacting the scene of Chekhov’s death.
Directing the English-language premiere of his play, as translated by Andrea Thome, Chilean playwright Guillermo Calderón uses thick needles to weave a densely metatheatrical interplay of artifice and history. Neva takes place at a time when, thanks to Stanislavsky and others, theatrical performance was becoming more “realistic” and individualist, even as reality was lurching into grotesque mass carnage. It is Masha who articulates this disconnect—first in rumblings about the impending Russian revolution, and finally in an explosion of rhetorical violence. (Bernstine pulls the pin from the grenade with riveting ferocity.) But while Olga and Aleko withdraw into “bourgeois” indulgence and illusion, they retain an uncanny connection to history—imagining the fever dreams of a consumptive Chekhov, Aleko has visions of the Soviet future—that hints at the enduring power of art. Even as it exposes the gaps between the stage world and the world stage, Neva’s neobrutalist punch demonstrates that power.—Adam Feldman
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