About Love Is Actually About Power and Blinkered Notions of Masculinity
Ivan Turgenev's First Love receives a new stage adaptation.
My lasting mental picture of Will Pomerantz and Nancy Harrow's About Love is of a woman holding a hat as men surround her and attempt to draw the winning "ticket" from a hat that will give them the right to kiss her hand. This is also one of the haunting images of Ivan Turgenev's 1860 novella, First Love, on which this new play (with added songs by Harrow) is based. Competently staged and performed under the banner of Culture Project at the Sheen Center, it is nevertheless mostly forgettable — spare that one image.
The tableau perfectly encapsulates the role of Zina (Silvia Bond), daughter of a downwardly mobile aristocratic Russian family and the star around which a solar system of men rotates. That includes our dwarf planet of a narrator, Peter (Jeffrey Kringer), who is staying with his mother (Jean Tafler) and Father (a stern and imposing Tom Patterson) in a rented country home outside of Moscow. Zina lives next door, where she entertains her suitors: There's the doctor (Dan Domingues), the cavalry officer (Patterson), the poet (Tafler), and the count (Helen Coxe). How is a middle-class 16-year-old like Peter to compete for her attention?
Zina doesn't have to try very hard to get his. She says jump, and he literally does — understandable behavior for the teenager, but absolutely pathetic for the older men, who behave in much the same way. Zina treats them like a cult leader treats supplicants, singling each out for abuse in sadistic tests of their devotion. In one such scene, she asks the doctor to hold out his hands so she can stick a pin into it, just to see how he responds to the pain. He complies, with a macho laugh that fades to a grimace (vivid performance by Domingues).
It's hard to see why he would put himself through it. Bond plays Zina somewhat absently, so that we never feel the radiant glow of her personality that surely drew these men in the first place. When she turns the sun off, we don't miss it because it was never there to begin with.
The fresh-faced Kringer is much more convincing as the naive schoolboy who falls for her, and he also makes a compelling narrator — when that job isn't being handled by the other actors.
Pomerantz (who also directs) has written About Love in the fashion of story theater, with ample narration (much of it pulled directly from translated Turgenev) and performers playing multiple roles. They easily transform from one role to the next using Whitney Locher's quick-change-friendly costumes, which live on racks on the side of Brian C. Staton's wooden platform of a set. Allen Hahn is able to convey both interior and exterior settings with his powerfully suggestive lighting. Using this lean design to maximum effect, Pomerantz stages a brisk production with little fat or sentimental indulgence.
The one exception occurs when Harrow's songs arrive to stop the narrative in its tracks and deliver little platitudes like, "Life is short, but it's our fate / Live before it is too late." Harrow has attempted to blend jazz with a traditional Russian sound, and has ended up with six numbers that sound like they might have been cut from an early draft of Cabaret.
Beyond that inventive misfire, Pomerantz is faithful to the spirit and substance of Turgenev's story. The benefit of an adaptation that hews so closely to the source material is that it allows us to peer into the dark heart of Turgenev's Russia, a land in which men are either alphas or superfluous, and in which women are demonic temptresses to be tamed. "I need someone who will break me," Zina candidly tells Peter. So we are less shocked than we should be when a man takes a riding crop to her in a later scene.
Of course, like its Russian antecedent, About Love is told entirely from the male perspective. We can glimpse fragments of context that might explain (if not justify) Zina's behavior: her uncouth and unwell mother (revoltingly played by Coxe), their dire financial situation. But in the end, it is Peter's story and the tragedy of his first love takes precedence over the tragedy of Zina's only life.
This is the same unquestioningly patriarchal perspective that has so attracted disillusioned right-wingers across the globe to the ridiculous notion that Russia is the last bastion of true masculinity in a world fallen to feminists and homosexuals. This isn't a myth invented by Vladimir Putin, either. As About Love vividly demonstrates, it has much deeper roots, and those roots have come up through the ground in our own country to nurture proud boys and revanchist men. A more opportunistic adapter might have titled the play Cucked by Dad: A Russian Bedtime Story. Sadly, About Love isn't nearly so bold.