Neva: Theater Review

Neva Theater Still - H 2013
Craig Schwartz

Neva Theater Still - H 2013

Unequivocally one of the theatrical events of the year, the first local, English-language presentation of a major new international playwright spins a droll conceit about the self-absorption of actors into a spellbinding political indictment without sacrificing irony or grace. 

Chilean playwright Guillermo Calderon trains his sights on the widow of Anton Chekhov in this St. Petersburg-set drama.

Over the last few years Chilean playwright-director Guillermo Calderón has had four impressive plays presented in Los Angeles at downtown’s REDCAT by his Teatro en el Blanco company in Spanish with supertitles. Those productions -- Neva, Diciembre, Villa and Discurso -- showed him to be a leading theatrical talent. It reflects meaningful commitment to a higher mission that three Southern California institutional organizations are now collaborating to offer their audiences an opportunity to experience his play Neva in English, in a translation by Andrea Thome.

In a rehearsal space in St. Petersburg, January 1905, self-dramatizing diva Olga Knipper (Sue Cremin), the recent widow of Anton Chekhov, bemoans her inability to act well any longer onstage, paralyzed by fear of the covert disappointment of others. Only two other actors have managed to show up due to a massacre in the streets, the slippery Aleko (Ramón de Ocampo) and the seemingly effacing Masha (Ruth Livier).

They alternately engage one another in earnest and improvised impromptu scenes of heightened emotion, amusing themselves with quick blurs of the distinction between the personal and the thespian, finding the genuine in the counterfeit and the posture in sincerity, all the while baiting and critiquing each other’s acting choices and moral character.

Appropriately mounted in the rehearsal room of the Kirk Douglas -- with a single chair on a carpet on an elevated floor, with a single halogen light at the actors' feet -- at first the play seems like a canny dissection of the performing ego, as if George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s classic The Royal Family were strained through a cheesecloth of Beckett.

The text sounds rhetorically more similar to many familiar English translations from Russian than if it were rendered from the original Spanish, with lots of conscious soul-beating. This parodistic kvetching, along with spot-on satirical dissections of exaggerated vanity, provides considerable, insightful laughs at the beginning, although the metaphysical dimension of the conception contains the temperamental antics within a framework of despair and grief. The bawdy company gossip eventually grows more labored than playful. As the enormity of the failing revolution infects the characters' interactions, the dark, privileged arena of art cannot maintain its distance from the political import of its obsession with emotional life above social commitment.

All the ruminations on the actor’s vocation are swept away in a blistering final monologue delivered with cauterizing fury by the heretofore mousy Masha, a vision of revolutionary zeal pitched as inspired madness. In the end, the audience is also indicted for its culpability in the obtuse uselessness of art, and for once that's not merely a glib feint at modernist profundity but an implacable assertion that is all the more powerful for acknowledging its own bloody irony. It is not irrelevant that this cri de coeur comes from a product of the last half-century of Chilean history, though no parallels are drawn, or needed.

The trio of actors must surmount the demands of performance placed upon them with apparent effortlessness, and they do so by spotlighting their technique while seeming to render it indiscernible. Cremin conveys many layers of both awareness and delusion with the gravitas befitting a former star of the Moscow Art Theatre, while Obie winner De Campo yet again displays his indispensable gifts as Aleko’s somewhat dim and ambiguous identity proves sly and inventive. Challenged to conjure variations on bad acting to the derision of her peers, Livier leaves us breathless with her bravura as the worm who turns with a vituperative passion, providing a catharsis hardly conceivable throughout the despondent comedy.

Neva is an extraordinary effort, and in this highly playable translation, it is likely to be an attractive property for many small adventurous theaters. Nevertheless, Calderon has continued to mature as a writer, and his subsequent plays retrospectively enrich the experience of this one. The more specifically grounded his subjects become in the particulars of his own Chilean social and political experience, the more universal the audience's apprehension. 

Following its run at the Kirk Douglas, the play moves to South Coast Rep in Costa Mesa June 19-23, and then to La Jolla Playhouse June 26-30.

Venue: Kirk Douglas Theatre, Culver City (runs through June 16)

Cast: Sue Cremin, Ruth Livier, Ramón de Ocampo

Director: Guillermo Calderón

Playwright: Guillermo Calderón; English translation by Andrea Thome

Set & costume designer: Sandra Burns

Presented by Center Theatre Group, South Coast Repertory, La Jolla Playhouse