A Chilean company finds the bitter side of humor
The psychic whiplash inflicted by Teatro en el Blanco’s Neva, one of four plays to inaugurate the RADAR L.A. festival on Tuesday night, goes far beyond the race your eyes must make (if you do not speak fluent Spanish) between the flashing text of the supertitles and the three shadow-wrapped actors onstage.
The production opens with an ecstatic tumble of self-pity uttered by Olga Knipper, widow of the great Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, in 1905 St. Petersburg. On a raised platform the size of a life raft, furnished only with a chair and a space heater — which also provides the lighting for the whole of the show — she begins to recite lines from The Cherry Orchard, but she cannot tap her actorly wellspring of “true” feeling. Instead she rants about her lost talent, the lying adoration of the public, her aging body and her weakness for chocolate.
On opening night, it was disconcerting to hear the audience, reading the translation, burst into laughter seconds before her more absurd laments, especially since the performer, Trinidad Gonzalez, delivers them with such poignant conviction. We are used to the phenomenon in comedy where what is merely amusing on the page becomes uproarious in performance. Here, the opposite: Reacting to the words before their delivery, the audience tastes the sweetness of the joke before it turns sour on the actress’s tongue.
Not that the script, by Chilean playwright, director and company leader Guillermo Calderon, isn’t intended to generate laughter. It is funny. But it’s not merely funny. In the tradition of Chekhov, it blurs the line between what is funny and what is heartbreaking.
As the biting wind of revolution stirs on the wintry streets outside, Olga and her two fellow actors — portrayed playfully, devastatingly by troupe members Jorge Becker and Mariana Munoz — enact imagined versions of Chekhov’s death, ostensibly to help restore the widow’s emotions. But what they are really doing is puncturing the barrier between past and future, truth and lies, memory and imagination, art and reality.
Filled with Brechtian declamation, disturbing sexual musings and moments of lyrical intimacy, Neva is an excursion into the beginnings of modern acting (Knipper being one of the original disciples of Stanislavski) and, audaciously, into the potential destruction of art itself, in the revolution that’s always around the corner. But, contrary to the usual amplifying power of communal experience, Neva may be one play you wish you could watch in the silence of an empty theater, to better appreciate the actors’ interpretation — and your own.
Neva. RADAR L.A. June 15, 17, 18 at REDCAT. http://www.redcat.org/event/radar-la-festival.
Audience reactions to Neva