Review: THE RUSSIAN PLAY (at the Shaw Festival)

by Lynn on July 21, 2019

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Royal George Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

Written by Hannah Moscovitch

Directed by Diana Donnelly

Designed by Gillian Gallow

Lighting by Michelle Ramsay

Musical direction by Ryan deSouza

Movement by Esie Mensah

Cast: Peter Fernandes

Marie Mahabal

Mike Nadajewski

Gabriella Sundar Singh

This stunning early play of Hannah Moscovitch about love and hard times in Stalinist Russia is given a dazzlingly creative production by director Diana Donnelly.

 The Story.  Stalinist Russia, the early 1920s. Sonya works in a flower shop in a small town. She is having an affair with Piotr the Gravedigger. Business for him is steady. He is always digging a fresh grave.  She fell in love with his charm and lovely singing of a mournful song about love. One thing leads to another and she becomes pregnant. This leads to many complications and revelations. Sonya must use every ounce of her pluck to survive. It’s hard. She’s a woman. They are either taken for granted, taken advantage of or ignored. Sonya’s tenacity and drive fights against the odds.

 The Production.  Diana Donnelly is an highly accomplished actress. She is now branching into direction with The Russian Play. This is Diana Donnelly’s debut as a director and the result is astonishing. She focuses on playwright Hannah Moscovitch’s heightened theatricality in The Russian Play and ramps that up in her production.

There is a quote projected on the back wall of the stage that greets the audience as it files in that establishes the sense of terror that exists in Stalinist Russia. Close to show time another quote is projected under the first, this time from Pussy Riot, the iconoclastic Russian rock group,  showing how that terror exists in today’s Russia, where freedom of anything, let alone speech, does not exist.

Sonya (the wonderful Gabriella Sundar Singh) lays ill on a bed surrounded by darkness, bedeviled by phantoms. She gets out of bed in a flash and comes downstage to directly address the audience and establish her wonderful irreverence, humour and spunk (and her Russian accent is dandy too). She talks of where to hide a piece of bread. She tells us this is a Russian play about love and understood is that there are hard times and disappointments along the way. Well of course, she’s a woman and poor, of course there are hard times for her.

In a flash of Michelle Ramsay’s evocative light the flower shop appears. In Gillian Gallow’s smart design the flower shop is suggested beside the bed by a mound of bright flower petals that spreads across the stage. At times characters throw the petals in the air where they cascade down to the stage. Lovely image.

The cast is stellar beginning with the demurely fearless Gabriella Sundar Singh as Sonya. Her Sonya is a smart, wily woman who has the tenacity to survive. She is buoyant when she talks about her love for Piotr and his quiet ways. She has a more mature, worldly attitude when dealing with Kostya, her rich lover. With Kostya we see a more sensual Sonya, more knowing.

Singh has a fine sense of how to play to and listen to the audience, since the audience is her “playing partner” when she is addressing them. She knows how to set up and deliver a laugh line beautifully.

As Piotr, the Gravedigger, Peter Fernandes is so quietly understated that it’s easy to see how Sonya fell in love with him. His manner is gentle but knowing. Piotr is an industrious man with a secret. It’s obvious he loves Sonya and she him. Sonya also has a secret that she shares with Piotr. A solution must be found. Without giving anything away, Donnelly illuminates the solution with music (fine playing by Marie Mahabal) and breathtaking staging involving a pulled scarf. Stunning.

Mike Nadajewski plays the rich Kostya who is smitten with Sonya. Nadajewski brings flare and imperiousness to Kostya. His hair is slick; his posture in his fur coat suggests power and prosperity. This Kostya is attractive, dangerous and compelling.

Marie Mahabal not only provides the violin accompaniment to the play, intensifying emotional moments with her playing, but also adds sound effects that intensify moments. When Sonya talks about her broken heart, Mahabal appears with a black box that she shakes vigorously. The contents rattle with so many broken pieces inside. A perfect rendering of a broken heart.

The production concludes with the raw, raucous sound of Pussy Riot blaring their political message, fearlessly. The play in part is about how women are often kept silent, unseen and forgotten. By ending the play with Pussy Riot Diana Donnelly reminds us that often those silent, unseen, forgotten women are front and centre and can roar,

Comment. The Russian Play (2006) is Hannah Moscovitch’s second play, (the first was Essay (2005). Moscovitch clearly establishes her voice, her depth of thought, her irreverent, sharp sense of humour and her wonderful facility with language in The Russian Play. Her characters are finely drawn and detailed. While Moscovitch has written a forthright, confident woman in Sonya, Moscovitch has also written a feminist play that illuminates the difficulty of women to be heard and seen regardless of whether it’s Stalinist Russia or here today.

This stunning debut production from Diana Donnelly beautifully realizes Hannah Moscovitch’s rich, funny and poignant play about love, feminism, freedom and lack of it. Donnelly has a vivid intellect and a fine theatrical mind that clearly conveys her ideas. I want to see more of Donnelly’s fine direction, please, as soon as humanly possible.

Presented by the Shaw Festival.

Began: June 8, 2019.

Closes: Oct. 12, 2019.

Running Time: 50 minutes.

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1 Kim Atkins September 14, 2019 at 7:54 pm

Sonja magnetic to watch on stage
A beautiful and immensely talented actress
The flower shoppe inventive and real
Every detail..the birth with the scarf
Just saw the play this afternoon
I was in the 4th row
The Audience jumped out of their seats at the end
Congratulations to all in the Company
Director, Actors, set, costume, music, lighting
Bravo for live theatre !