by Lynn on April 2, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Patrick McManus as Makarov Photo: Dahlia Katz

Live and in person at Crow’s Theatre, the Streetcar Crowsnest, Carlaw and Dundas, plays until April 24 2022. (held over).

Written by George F. Walker

Suggested by the novel “The Life of a Useless Man” by Maxim Gorky

Directed by Tanja Jacobs

Set by Lorenzo Savoini

Costumes by Ming Wong

Lighting by Logan Raju Cracknell

Sound by Thomas Ryder Payne

Cast: Christopher Allen

Shayla Brown

Kyle Gatehouse

Patrick McManus

Michelle Mohammed

Eric Peterson

Paolo Santalucia

Shauna Thompson

A big-hearted play about disappointed people who prevail, by George F. Walker, a master of playwrighting if ever there was one. Beautifully created, acted and directed by artists who know the value and pacing of humour to overcome despair.

The Story. It’s 1905 in a small town in Russia. Vasley has been an orphan since he was seven-years-old (as per The Life of a Useless Man by Maxim Gorky, on which Orphans for the Czar is ‘suggested.’). His Uncle Piotr has taken him in to live. It’s not a happy existence for Vasley. He’s hungry because his aunt does not feed him properly. He’s regularly beaten by his ‘friend’ Yakov, of the village. One of Vasley’s few friends is Rayisha, a sweet young woman who is blind. He tries to describe the darkness of the world (so she won’t feel out of place in her own ‘dark’ world) and that gets the ire of Rayisha’s mother who says that Vasley scared her with his doom and gloom.  Life wears him down.

Piotr suggests that Vasley goes to St. Petersburg to live and work with his half-brother (or cousin—the relationship is murky) who owns a bookshop. Life is no better there. Vasley has to run the bookshop and decide how much to charge per book, feed his Uncle (referred to as Master) and provide him with accommodating young women who don’t mind that Master is riddled with syphilis. Vasley can read, but what use is that when every thought is gloomy.

One day, Vasley is visited by Makarov (Patrick McManus), a successful-looking man who wants Vasley to keep an eye on the bookstore customers and feed him the information who in turn will give the information to the Czar. Unrest is mounting. Revolution is bubbling. Vasley is being paid by Makarov to spy. For the first time in his life Vasley is well fed, while those as hard done by are starving.    

The Production. Lorenzo Savoini’s set is evocative of poverty and age. The back wall is dull grey wood with two doorways in it. A staircase goes up the side of the wall with one of the doorways at the top. The floor is well worn and also rough. To the sides of the stage are tables laden with books of all sizes, shapes and colours. You want to approach the tables and read the titles (okok, and “borrow” a book) but the ropes in front of the stage let one know that is a ‘no-no.’ Over the course of the play the tables will be moved around to create the bookstore or a table on which to eat. A bench will also be used. This simple set has created the poor world of Vasley (Paolo Santalucia) and his Uncle Piotr/Master (Eric Peterson).  

Ming Wong’s costumes continue this world of poverty vs prosperity. Whether in the small country village or in St. Petersburg the clothes are thread-bare, frayed, well-worn and tattered. Vasley’s ‘coat’ is not only full of holes and thin, it looks like it’s rigid with dirt. I thought that a wonderful touch.  The characters of Olga (Michelle Mohammed) and Maya (Shauna Thompson) are not peasants but are working for the peasant class. They are part of a group wanting a better life for the people. For them revolution is imminent. These are two of the characters on whom Vasley is spying.  Olga’s costume is a sturdy frock. She can afford to buy books. Maya dresses in stylish pants, a shirt and a tie. She is often mistaken for a man and she doesn’t care.

The costume for Makarov is another matter. Makarov is the ruling/moneyed class. He works for the Czar. Patrick McManus as Makarov is the essence of success and money. His beard and hair are trimmed and combed. He wears a beautiful fitted black suit and vest with a pocket watch. His shoes are shined. He exudes success and power, especially because Patrick McManus does not play the power. He is quiet speaking, except when dealing with Sasha (Kyle Gatehouse) a hot-headed thug. McManus listens and we listen too.

To add one more dash to this impressive creation, lighting designer Logan Raju Cracknell has lit Makarov in his first appearance so that it throws a shadow that goes to the top of the wall. That shadow and that character overpower everything else on that stage. It’s a fantastic effect to suggest monumental power, so bravo to Cracknell and director Tanja Jacobs for that image.

Playwright George F. Walker has created in Vasley almost an empty canvas. While he can read he has no opinions on anything except that his world is dark, depressing and almost hopeless. Vasley is so used to beatings, usually at the hands of his ‘friend’ Yakov (Christopher Allen) that Paolo Santalucia plays him stooped, as if he expects to be thumped. His brow is always furrowed. Worry creases his face. He is a man with questions and a sense of curiosity to explain why he should think better of his dark world.  Yet Vasley has a self-deprecating sense of humour that is hilarious. That Santalucia has wonderful timing in floating a laugh-line makes the humour always get its mark. But at the end, Vasley has an epiphany, born of total frustration that results in a shift in attitude. Our reaction is subtle but resounding.  

As Piotr and Master, Eric Peterson gives a masterclass in acting. As Piotr he is animated and kindly with dashes of frustration that his nephew is so morose. As Master (either a half-brother or cousin?) Eric Peterson is slow moving as if every movement hurts. In both characters Peterson knows how to pace a line and fill it full of nuance, making the audience lean in and listen to every single word, waiting for the last one, that is the joke. Masterful.  

Director Tanja Jacobs and her gifted cast creates a sense of community with those characters, and certainly regarding Rayisha—taking care of her because she is blind—and that sense of community is so obvious with how these actors take care of each other. Shayla Brown plays Rayisha with delicacy but also inner strength. It’s an impressive professional debut.

Tanja Jacobs has established the sense of ennui pervading the lives of these characters who keep working without a hint of doing better. But the humanity and humour that fill this production and play, both self-deprecating and aimed at the unfairness of the world of these characters, in its way establishes a sense of hope, a glimmer of light.

This is a wonderful, bracing, very funny play about people who keep on keeping on, so of course it’s a play for our times.

Comment. Russia is rich in writers who illuminate and describe the history and people of that country, but no one writes with as much compassion and understanding of the downtrodden, poor, peasant class like Maxim Gorky does. Similarly in Canada, no playwright captures the world of the marginalized and forgotten with as much heart and gentle embrace as George F. Walker. He’s been illuminating these characters and their world since the 1970s. What a perfect melding of writing worlds that George F. Walker has created in Orphans for the Czar. (And is Walker winking at Orphans of the Storm, D.W. Griffith’s silent film of 1921 about the French Revolution that was echoing Bolshevism in Russia?).

This is a big, bold play of 10 characters and it takes guts to produce it in these tricky theatre times. So bravo to Crow’s for taking it on.

Produced by Crow’s Theatre

Runs until April 24, 2022. (held over)

Running Time: 90 minutes.

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1 Peter Blais April 3, 2022 at 9:47 am

Lynn – Lovely review. Got a preview read of the script a couple of months ago. Won’t get to see this production – but your review describes so well what I’m missing. Crap. Big Hugs. Keep well. Peter