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Black Milk

Russian playwright Vassily Sigarev's New York premiere is an over-long exercise in gratuitous violence and scatological language.

Liba Vaynberg and Josh Marcantel
in Black Milk
(© Carol Rosegg)
Russian playwright Vassily Sigarev, whose Black Milk is at the East 13th Street Theatre, has been widely produced in Eastern Europe and even London but never previously done in Manhattan. Perhaps a reason for this is that while Sigarev's attitude towards the futility of improving society's downward spin may have pertinence elsewhere, it looks like a repetitive, nihilistic, self-congratulatory sketch this side of the Atlantic.

Directed by Michel Hausmann from a translation by Sasha Dugdale, this over-long exercise in gratuitous violence and scatological language concerns low-lifes Lyovchik (Josh Marcantel) and eight-months-pregnant Poppet (Liba Vaynberg). They have come to the train station in a nowhere Russian village -- a narrator (Ralph Martin) has coyly described it as the butt-end of the world -- after bilking the locals of their few rubles by giving them free toasters and then charging exorbitantly for shipping.

Success hasn't made them comfortable with each other in the trendy black get-ups costume designer Liene Dobraja has picked out. Instead, they constantly lash out verbally and physically (Turner Smith choreographs the endless kicks and pushes), often shouting the same vulgar, two-word phrase that gentler types would utter as "Get lost."

They go at one another, that is, when not blisteringly insulting the vodka-selling, gives-as-good-as-she-gets ticket clerk (Anna Wilson), the aged scam artist Petrovna (Emily Ward), and a group of locals, who come with their boxed toasters to get their money back. Though the pair cruelly dispatch the dissatisfied customers, one, Mishanya (John Brambery), returns wearing a flak jacket but nothing else and flourishing a rifle like inept Uncle Vanya. The battling lovers keep it up until, for a first-act closer, Poppet goes into labor.

In the second act, Poppet is a new woman as the arrival of a still-unnamed daughter, unseen in a stroller, has triggered her maternal instincts. Meanwhile, Lyovchik's jealous father instincts have also come to the fore. He remains as abusive as before, if not more so, and insists that the family board the next train, as Poppet declares her wish to remain behind to live a "normal" life.

It's giving nothing away to say good times ahead aren't in the cards, and the play eventually turns into a literal depiction of the old cliché about crying over spilled milk. Therein, incidentally, is the explanation of the work's psychologically jarring title.

One hallmark of Sigarev's writing is that every event in the play -- the focal couple's arguments, Petrovna's attempt to con them, Mishanya's buck-nekkid turn with his weapon, the leave-taking of midwife Auntie Pasha (Rachel Murdy) -- goes on way past its sell-by date.

But on a happier note, most of the actors -- certainly Marcantel and Vaynberg -- bring vital commitment to the enterprise.


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