There is something thrillingly perverse about sitting in a plush red seat in a darkened theater that was founded by a committed socialist, surrounded by people who paid $55 for 80 minutes of live performance, and being lectured about what a bourgeois extravagance this whole setup is. Of course, that is just one of the many inherent contradictions in Guillermo Calderón's (Diciembre) brilliant and provocative play Neva, now receiving its English-language premiere at The Public Theater.
Set in 1905 St. Petersburg, Neva is about Anton Chekhov's widow, German actress Olga Knipper (Bianca Amato), rehearsing her late husband's landmark play, The Cherry Orchard. Knipper practices the work in an empty theater, while Tsarist forces gun down hundreds of striking workers, led by the crusading Priest Father Gapon, in the streets outside. This "Bloody Sunday" would become the prelude to the Russian Revolution, but Olga doesn't seem to care much; she's just sooo dedicated to her craft. She is joined by fellow thespians Aleko (Luke Robertson) and Masha (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), who act out scenes from Olga's life (Chekhov's death, specifically) and in equal measure praise or chide one another for their ability to make it "believable." They do this to pass the time while waiting for the director and the cast, many of whom are probably dead — victims of the civil unrest. It's all very self-indulgent and boring, though perhaps this is by design.
The smallness of the actors' world is made manifest by the set, which limits their movement to a tiny platform in the center of the Anspacher Theater. A single practical light — controlled by the actors — that is occasionally switched off completely, illuminates the action. Calderón, who also directs, makes Neva as much about what you don't see as what you do. It is obvious that the real drama is taking place in the darkness, the revolution at the doorstep of the theater.
The actors are called upon to exercise their Stanislavski muscle until it burns, and all three succeed. Amato is particularly skilled at conjuring tears and then dashing them away at a moment's notice, laughing maniacally as if to say, "Ha! I fooled you!" Of course, all of this cruelly exposed artifice leads the viewer to mistrust the theater and its intentions. Calderón shatters the suspension of disbelief — a gift he never wanted in the first place.
All that is left to make a lasting impression then, is Calderón's subversive language, translated into English for maximum punch by Andrea Thome. I don't know the Spanish equivalent of "the most important organ in my body is my appendix and I want to stick it in your kidney and watch you sweat," but, I know it sounds breathtaking and ridiculous in English as spoken by Luke Robertson. (Well done never-cracking-a-smile, actors.)
These characters might be at the dawn of the 20th century, but their political discourse about class and inequality echoes the Occupy movement in the states, Los Indignados in Spain, and the student movement led by Camila Vallejo in Calderón's native Chile. It's about us, right now. Perhaps that is why Calderón has chosen to dub this English-language premiere of a play that has performed for audiences throughout Europe and Latin America "My American play."
The most thrilling monologue in Neva, and the reason to see it at all, is delivered at the very end. With a perfect balance of fiery rage and control, Quincy Tyler Bernstine's Masha says among other things, "I hate the audience, those simpletons who come to entertain themselves while the world ends. They come to seek culture, to sigh. They should be ashamed. They should give that money to the poor." She convinced me.