Los Angeles Theater Review: THREE DAYS IN THE COUNTRY (Antaeus Theatre in Glendale)

by Samuel Garza Bernstein on July 13, 2018

in Theater-Los Angeles

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THE TRAGIC COMEDY OF LOVE

Antaeus Theatre closes its season with a terrific production of Three Days in the Country, Patrick Marber’s adaptation of Turgenev’s A Month in the Country. Turgenev was said to be Chekov’s inspiration to become a playwright, yet my affection for the latter has never extended to the former. Chekov feels crackling and alive — wise to the impossibility of comedy existing without tragedy and vice versa. Turgenev sometimes strikes me as dull and long-winded. Lots of speeches. Politics. Love as societal metaphor. Not much momentum.

To be fair, I have never experienced either playwright unadulterated. I don’t speak Russian. And translation, let alone adaptation, can never completely convey the author’s gestalt. Questions of meaning, language, culture, and socioeconomics swirl around, and you can’t always tell what is true and what is merely accurate.

Marber’s approach is direct and sometimes brutal. The story remains basically the same: Natalya, the wife of a rich Russian landowner, falls in love for the first time in her life — to disastrous effect — with her young son’s handsome tutor. Everyone in her life is damaged, some annihilated. Along the way, a local quack seeks unlikely companionship; a rich bore fancies a beautiful 17-year-old girl; a young boy seeks a father figure; a husband doubts his own worth; and an entire way of life teeters on the precipice of history.

Marber makes the tutor a budding socialist. Hindsight being 20/20, he knows what’s coming soon for Russia. Yet even without that fore-knowledge, it seems to me that this was always a play about people on the verge of extinction. Marber has made drastic changes to two of the main characters that add a welcome degree of urgency. The tutor, Belyaev, is neither shy nor innocent. He is not Turgenev’s unwitting catalyst, but a conscious player — aware of his power.

Rakitin, Natalya’s admirer and her husband’s lifelong friend, is a different man entirely. No longer a eunuch, Rakitin is Natalya’s obsessed fan who lives and breathes only for the object of his desire. It is surprisingly heady stuff. Turgenev’s juxtaposition of the placidity of provincial life to the desperation of unexpressed passion becomes something more dangerous than he likely intended. And much funnier.

The cast I saw (“The Blunderers”) is fantastic. (The other cast, playing on alternate dates, is “The Assassins.”) Nike Doukas is captivating as Natalya, giving herself over to the passion that will claim her as its victim, but never shying away from Natalya’s shrewdness and manipulative impulses. It’s tricky when everyone on stage is supposed to admire, love, or fear a character. The audience waits to see if the all the fuss is justified. It is.

Ms. Doukas’s cunning equal is Leo Marks. His Rakitin is clever, acerbic, and agile. Yet he emerges as the unlikely emotional heart of the play. His sacrifice and love are eternal. That is what makes his rage so terrifying when he confronts Belyaev, the tutor, and presents the far younger man with a soul-crushing vision of his future — a desolation he believes to be the only possible result for Belyaev, just as it has been for himself.

Armin Shimerman gives the quack Doctor Shepigelsky a giddy note that makes him a far more interesting curmudgeon than he might be otherwise. When Shimerman woos Lily Knight as the spinster Lizaveta, the two of them perform a pas de deux that is sharp and pragmatic, yet still holds the possibility of love.

As Vera, Natalya’s young ward, and her rival for Belyaev’s affections, Jeanne Syquia has some of the funniest moments of the evening, yet the character also has the largest emotional arc. Syquia has big, exasperated outbursts, then moments of great stillness, as awareness dawns — not just about love, but about the human condition.

The other standout is Elijah Justice as Kolya, the young boy who hero worships Belyaev yet shows a bellicose disdain for just about everyone else. Justice is wonderfully malevolent, stalking the stage with his bow and arrow, looking for all the world like someone who will grow up to be either a priest or a serial killer — good or evil — something extreme.

Antonio Jaramillo has some nice moments as Natalya’s husband Arkady, particularly when the character grows more and more clueless about what his wife may or may not be getting up to while he micromanages the estate. Gregory Itzin makes Bolshintsov, the rich neighbor and a suitor for Vera, into a cuddly, befuddled, hot mess. You root for him even though you know you shouldn’t.

I was less taken with Peter Mendoza as Belyaev. He cuts a fine figure, but he doesn’t have the presence or range to fully inhabit Belyaev. This is an instance where, unlike with Nike Doukas and Natalya, it actually is a bit hard to see what all the fuss is about. Belyaev is a catalyst for Natalya, Vera, Rakitin, and Kolya, but Mendoza doesn’t muster the necessary sensual or intellectual passion.

Director Andrew Paul does a wonderful job staging the action with purpose and clarity. In his program note he acknowledges his lack of enthusiasm for Turgenev, but he finds Marber’s adaptation thrilling and relevant. Paul’s excitement and estimable skill is evident throughout. I do suspect, however, that he could do one hell of a job with Brian Friel’s more faithful adaptation, or the Emlyn Williams version. He gets these people.

Jeffrey Schoenburg’s costumes are quite beautiful. The uncredited hair design, however, is unhappily modern. I have noticed the same thing in other Antaeus productions — the clothes and shoes are consistent with the period, but little attempt is made to make the women’s hair authentic. If it is an artistic choice, I confess I don’t see its value. Could it be financial constraint? Either way, it is a minor irritant in a production of many triumphs.

photos by Geoffrey Wade Photography

Three Days in the Country
Antaeus Theatre Company
Gindler Performing Arts Center, 110 East Broadway in Glendale
Fri and Sat at 8; Sun at 2; Mon at 8 (and Thurs 8/23 at 8)
ends on August 26, 2018
for tickets, call 818.506.1983 or visit Antaeus

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