Vassily Sigarev’s powerful play Black Milk takes place in a remote train station in the hinterlands of Russia, where a couple of young con artists, having just swindled the local yokels, wait for a train to take them back to the capital. While there, they encounter various denizens from the area, including an old transient, a young man drunk out of his mind, a pensioner and a ticket clerk, both of whom sell home-distilled vodka, as well as other assorted natives. The simple yet extraordinarily poignant story that develops explores themes such as the helplessness and irony of love in a corrupt, impoverished land, and the contempt and avarice that desperation breeds, which perpetuates itself, leading to a kind of spiritual autocannibalism.
Black Milk is very much a Russian play and would ideally be directed and performed by Russians. However, it is also transcendent enough, both dramatically and thematically, to where it doesn’t need to be set in Russia to work. Ultimately its setting is an existential realm, and by simply making a few cosmetic changes to the script, references that would link it to a specific time and place, a director who, for whatever reason, was unable or unwilling to realize its Russianness, could easily set it in a world of his own invention, a world that he knows intimately, a world that the action of the play would help define, and in this way use the play to say something deeply personal. This is why it’s so puzzling that Michel Hausmann, who directed Sasha Dugdale’s British translation of the play, instead chooses to either to do some sort of imitation of what he thinks the play should look like in Russian or a kind of Russian-American hybrid (it’s not clear which), throwing in the bits and scraps of knowledge he has about its country of origin to give his staging some sort of half-baked authenticity.
Ika Avaliani’s fine set, brought to life by evocative lighting and sound design (Yuki Nakase and Andy Cohen, respectively) notwithstanding, the lack of attention to detail in this production is frustrating. One character is described as having no teeth, yet the actor portraying him has a mouth full of them and makes no attempt to act as if he doesn’t. A pair of boots is described as being rubber but are clearly not. Characters have different accents but the logic behind these is stupefyingly inconsistent. A number of indicators point to the action taking place specifically in Russia (signs in Russian, Russian words, Russian names), yet both the mentality and the logic with which these characters are played—and with which the actors are directed—is particularly American; no attempt is made to understand who these people are and where they come from. An American interpretation of the play is not the problem; set it in America, set it on Mars if you like. The problem lies in the inconsistency. Some of these issues may seem relatively minor but together they suggest a lack of commitment to the world the director is trying to create.
All of these faults could have easily been forgivable however if only the acting, and by extension Mr. Hausmann’a grasp of the material, was robust and insightful enough to communicate viscerally the nuances and themes of the play. Unfortunately for the most part the performances are on the level of something one would see in an episode of CSI, adequate to get across one or two main ideas but ultimately shallow (as most of the actors appear quite capable one can only suppose that the true problem was Mr. Haussmann’s inability to explain to them what was required).
In the first scene, the Narrator (Ralph Martin), an old, transient drunk, appears neither to be a drunk nor a transient, except as indicated by his outfit (excellent all around work by costume designer Liene Dobraja). In portraying his character, Mr. Martin lacks the weight of having been a homeless wino in the middle of Russia (or America for that matter) for the past 30 years.
Josh Marcantel’s performance as the con man Lyovchik, despite being very energetic, is quite thin, lacking the layers necessary to make him believable as the character he is portraying. Also absent are the power and sexuality that would make him attractive to someone like his girlfriend, Poppet. Liba Vaynberg as Poppet, though clearly available emotionally, as is evidenced in the show’s climax, also lacks the foundation to make her character more than a TV version of foul-mouthed American trash. And the chemistry that’s supposed to exist between the two of them is lacking.
Anna Wilson creates one of the better characterizations in her portrayal of The Clerk, playing her as a sort-of Southern American hillbilly, an analogy, perhaps, of the backwoods Russian. But with this analogy unsupported by the rest of the production her choice seems odd; she’s essentially hung out to dry. Rachel Murdy hits some of her notes as Auntie Pasha but she too seems a bit muddled as to Pasha’s deeper realities.
Emily Ward stands out as Petrovna, managing to infuse her role with just the right combination of helplessness, cunning, and passive aggressiveness to make her very recognizable as being part of a particular contingent of desperate old Russian women—so pathetic, so destitute, so submissive, but who’d cut your throat in your sleep if there was a ruble in it for them.
A particularly questionable choice is to have Mishanya (John Brambery), when he runs into the station blind drunk and wielding a shotgun, be bare-assed, dressed in nothing but boots and an open jacket. The character is not naked in the script and it seems the decision was an attempt by Mr. Hausmann to illustrate the absurdity and insanity of the world in which the play takes place. It’s true, blind drunk Russians do run around naked on occasion. But dramatically, at least in this instance, it doesn’t work: First, no matter what Mishanya does, all attention is drawn to his penis. And second, the world created on the stage isn’t nuanced enough or dramatic enough (Mr. Brambery’s performance included) to make the nudity meaningful or to counterbalance its sensationalism. If going that route, having Mishanya in his underwear would have served the same purpose.
It’s unfortunate that directors who can’t fathom the universe in which a play exists still insist on trying to imitate it: Reinvent it if you don’t understand it, plays aren’t set in stone! This desire to imitate seems to come from a combination of being in love with the material and at the same time having nothing personal to say through it.
Ultimately it comes down to the difference between love and vanity; nothing truthful is ever created with vanity.
photos by Carol Rosegg
presented by High Stakes Theatre and Palo de Agua at the East 13th Street Theatre
scheduled to end on August 4, 2012
for more information and tickets, visit http://www.blackmilktheplay.com