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Theater Review:

"GO AWAY – GO AWAY," European Repertory Company at National Pastime Theater

BY LUCIA MAURO

Watching this superb European Repertory Company production of Nikolay Kolyada’s "Go Away-Go Away" – particularly the aching resilience of lead actress Lusia Strus – it’s easy to forget the obvious and repetitive ramblings of the script (which could be cut by at least 30 minutes). Co-directors Yasen Peyankov and Luda Lopatina – who also translated this dark comedy from its original Russian with Peter Christensen – capture the absurd tragedy of characters trapped inside a cycle of misery and destitution.

But the play tends to hammer home, with such relentless force, the dead-end nature of these people’s lives (even using the term dead-end) that there is nowhere for them to go dramatically. So the work becomes quite a stagnant exercise in unfulfilled dreams – perhaps a deliberate choice on Kolyada’s part, since it further underscores the all-enveloping ennui of the spirit suffered by oppressed people. Yet one wishes for more intricately woven ideas and complex characters.

"Go Away-Go Away" is set in a grimy military town in the post-Soviet Russia of the late 1990s. The action takes place in a cramped, state-run apartment where four generations of single women – all fathered by soldiers – struggle to find their purpose in a society that reduces its people to groveling for a few crumbs of happiness. Their apartment overlooks a military barracks and a new bathhouse, where the sight of naked men is as common as their excessively starchy diet.

At the center of this melancholic matriarchy is middle-aged Ludmilla – a feisty woman intent on getting out of this hell-hole of a town. She pins all her hopes on a rather odd, free-spirited man named Valentin, who answers her personal ad. Their strained courtship takes place over dumplings and vodka in the living room, where they are surrounded by Ludmilla’s senile, 100-year-old Bolshevik grandmother Marxina; alcoholic mother Engelsina; young coquettish daughter Angelica; and Angelica’s naively earnest soldier boyfriend Yevgeny.

Ludmilla, captivated by Valentin’s announcement that he has "seven rooms and a porch," is seduced by the possibility of space and privacy – not by the man himself, who appears to be shady and duplicitous. The first half of the play could be called Ludmilla’s lament. Strus, who is the main reason to see this play, seamlessly infuses Ludmilla with a psychotic neediness and fierce independence at the same time. Her character totters about in an awkward flirtatious dance around the opportunistic Valentin (Kirk Anderson in wonderfully understated and mysterious form) – oblivious to her daughter’s dangerous unraveling.

By the second act, once certain lies have been laid on the table, the story shifts to the previously taciturn Angelica’s inability to ever accept a man’s genuine love. She prostitutes herself and dreams of America, while her mother resolves to simply exist together with the mice, the mosquitoes, the leaking roof, and an adjacent steel door that perpetually slams.

Yet, for all its insights into the stifling lives of people battling oppression, "Go Away-Go Away" seems to dance misery-laden circles around itself (despite the underlying bleak humor). It says a lot of the same things and never truly probes deeper into its characters’ overwhelming challenges. Marxina (Deborah Davis) and Engelsina (Kay Schmidt) spend most of the play passed out on sofas. These fine actresses basically merge with the scenery.

The playwright also struggles to incorporate an incredibly shallow and stereotypical gay relationship – the two Sergei’s, who are Ludmilla’s borders about to leave for America. Their only scene involves a wild going-away party, complete with ABBA music and feathered boas, which wraps up Act One.

Structurally, the play falters – especially the bathhouse conceit. And, for the most part, the men are written as dopes. Only Ludmilla and -- to an extent -- Angelica are endowed with bold splashes of flaws and determination.

Julie Paparella delivers a bitingly defiant performance as Angelica (most notable in the fierce slapping of her mother but claiming she’s swatting mosquitoes; Ludmilla, in turn, is allergic to Angelica). Tim Donovan transforms Yevgeny from a careless, immature chauvinist into a misguided idealist confused over his manly role in society.

Byron Wallace’s hyper-realistic, dilapidated set -- complemented by Gregg R. Essex’s stark lighting and Jane Bagnall’s faux-sexy but drab costumes – brings to vivid life (from the filthy curtains and faded wallpaper to scattered jars of pickled tomatoes and smudged Cyrillic calendars) the dignity-deadening nature of a massively complex country in the process of re-defining itself. Kolyada’s play, however, resorts to chronic bellowing when it should sing across many octaves of human injustice.•

European Repertory Company’s production of "Go Away-Go Away" runs through March 9 at National Pastime Theater, 4139 N. Broadway. Tickets: $15-$22. Call 773-248-0577 or log onto www.europeanrep.homestead.com.


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