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All That Russian Passion in Just Two Hours

Date: Jan 22, 2015


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Fans of Russian drama---or anyone who's slogged through War and Peace---might be startled to learn that Classic Stage Company's current production of A Month in the Country lasts roughly 120 minutes. Since the original script for Ivan Turgenev's 19th century comic romance can run nearly five hours, does that mean important moments have been tossed aside?

Not according to director Erica Schmidt, who commissioned a new translation from John Christopher Jones. For her, the massive cuts to the original text were necessary to tease out the play's throbbing heart.

And make no mistake: For all its propriety, the play is feisty and alive. As Natalya (Taylor Schilling), a landowner's wife, tries to decide which man she loves---be it her husband (Anthony Edwards), her longtime friend Rakitin (Peter Dinklage), or Aleksey (Mike Faist), the young man who's tutoring her ward---she veers among calculated schemes, impulsive declarations, and sweaty trysts.

Meanwhile, the servants and social climbers in her orbit engage in all sorts of hijinks. "Part of what I love about what Chris has done [with his translation] is highlight the comedy," Schmidt says. "Because when you read earlier translations of the play, you can see that it's funny, but there's so much language that I imagine it would be hard to get the comedy across."

The same goes for Natalya's fiery temperament. Take a scene where she discusses a pesky doctor. "Chris has the doctor call Natalya an 'obsequious cynic slithering around," Schmidt says. "I thought, 'Oh my gosh, that's so strong. I can't believe she would say that.' Then I looked back at the text, and she does say each of those words, but it's in three paragraphs of equivocation. I love that he has given it this rocket pace."

To complement this intensity, Schmidt has her cast speak directly to the audience during the play's many soliloquies. And since the front row is just a few feet from the stage, those moments have a striking intimacy. When Natalya realizes that Aleksey loves her and not her ward, for instance, she plays it cool in front the other characters, but she lets US know how excited she is.

"I think it's thrilling," says Schmidt. "Her agenda is so masked a lot of the time, and it's so exciting for us to hear what she's really thinking."

The director adds that the configuration of the theatre, with the audience on three sides of the stage, also increases the urgency. "In the thrust space, you're watching the audience watch the play at almost all moments," she says. "There's never a time you can forget the audience at CSC, and that's part of the joy of watching and doing plays there. The audience is always present, and it helps to enliven the whole experience."


Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor

Photo by Joan Marcus