Slavic Soul Remix: Bring a Weasel and a Pint of your Own Blood Festival at JACK

Merlin Whitehawk. Photo by Cecilia Garcia

Merlin Whitehawk. Photo by Cecilia Garcia

The annual dare: Mac Wellman challenges three of his Brooklyn College playwrights to write short pieces based on the same source material, this year Maxim Gorky’s remembrances of Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Andreev. The set, a palimpsest of JACK’s signature tinfoil, typed pages and reverent portraits reminded me of that chunk in Anna Karenina I’ve been meaning to finish. I’m not gonna lie—even with the gracious welcome and free pickles, I wondered if I needed to be in on a joke (or a closer reader of the Russians) to enjoy the consequences. Turns out, I did not. Working with director Mia Rovegno, the playwrights, Zarina Shea, John Budge, and Heloise Wilson, each spun the anxiety of handling these heavyweights and their histories into gold— lamé.

Shea’s meta-take on Tolstoy (Tolstoy: Man For All Mankind) is perhaps most fraught with the angst of rendering a great author who also happened to be a total “dick.” Actors, some suited, and others bearded, in bohemian peasant-chic, amble onto stage, settling into casual conversations, songs, and shots of vodka. Everything but the samovar sits atop a central wooden table: heads of cabbage, pickles, teacups, bread, a bowl of beets. Emcee-like, Merlin Whitehawk knocks on it, tells us we’re in a theater in New York and there’s a table. While stroking an imaginary beard that grows longer, he offers fun-facts about Gorky in an assured and colloquial tone: “Dude loved him some socialism.”

Charise Greene as borsht-pushing Russian woman and Michael Patrick Kane, a lankier Paul Giamatti, take over from there. For them, the table, and the task at hand, is much more wobbly. Julia Sirna-Frest, quasi-audience member on a date, enthusiastically joins the process, hilariously showing off her familiarity with the famed ‘train story.’ Exhausted by the process, and the anachronistic shock of learning that Christopher Plummer is dead (he’s still alive, folks), she leaves with a “peace out” and the piece ends with an off-stage toilet flush and a door slam. Veering in and out of a casual conversational style (“There are times when being Russian is the worst”) and a stereotypical super-serious Russian reverence, the three crisscross the fourth wall, as well as pasts, presents, and futures to evoke not so much Tolstoy, but the very act of rendering a “Tolstoy” through the layers of Gorky’s notes, a contested personality, cultural differences, and times.

He was a doctor, right? But, in Chekhov: The Magistrate, Budge imagines Chekhov (Yehuda Hyman) as a gently philosophical judge, mediating the sternness of a school-marmish prosecutor on a mission (Eliza Bent) and a village man (Merlin Whitehawk) accused of stealing a railcar bolt to weight his fishing pole. The trial conceit feels like the most traditional ‘play’ with the Gorky material. Bent viciously makes her case, indicting the man for thievery and for having a fundamental “crooked bend” to his body. To her, his transgression is tantamount to murder because that one screw could possibly be the one that keeps the train from derailing. In contrast, Chekhov asks the man to play his whistle and lets him off the hook to go “ripen” into an actual criminal. Through Chekhov’s odd line of questioning (“do you like gramophones”) and proclamations like “everyone should speak his own language” we hear echoes of his plays – the banal encounters, miscommunications, and the limited capacities of a shared language. A genteel Judge Judy, this Chekhov may let the thief go, but indicts all of humanity for living “badly.”

In a camp piece set to Bee Gees tunes, Andreev: Leo Leo Leo, Wilson approaches not the anxiety of evoking the complexities of a historical personage, but the intangible, disorienting feeling when a social movement is about to be usurped by another. Wilson literalizes the dawn of communism as the last days of disco, and, it’s also New Year’s Eve. Our hosts are three sparkly disco diehards named Hollywood, Queen Mimosa, and Sirna-Frest, as “Kevin” because “fucked up things happen to women” and her mother named her as antidote. The three dance on the precipice of a cultural moment, celebrating and lamenting the imminent end of the world and the beginning of another, literalized by two Russian women hyperbolically pregnant with the “futurists.” By the end, the drag divas have the women on roller-skates and together, they await the inevitable. In this final, zanier twist on reckoning with histories, Wilson capitalizes on the dare to revivify the past by playing with what can only be felt from a future place.

Always fascinating to see the way three different minds, likely ones we’ll see lots more of, alchemize similar materials. And, to be gleefully reminded of the ways the theater gives shape to, and sometimes even gilds, impossible, alternate and meta-visions of what goes unseen and overlooked in so-called real time.

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