One of the greatest wonders of theatre is being surprised. When I first heard of “Neva”, the story of a group of actors, including Chekhov’s widow, rehearsing against the background of the Russian Revolution, I expected something polished, staid. Instead, Theatre en Bloc’s production is full of power and humor in equal measure, drawing us in with comedy and charm, before grabbing us with its potent final message. It’s a fiercely political play, drawing on the fury and fervor of early 20th Century Russia to show us something about the times in which we now live.
“Neva” opens at a theatre in St. Petersburg, right in the heart of a rebellion. As the people outside their doors are being gunned down, a trio of actors go about their lives of narcissistic worry, going through rehearsal for their production of the the Cherry Orchard. Among their number is the widow of Anton Chekhov, Olga Knipper, who been unable to act well since the death of her husband, and who’s insecurity is on full display. She has her fellow actors act out her husband’s death ad nauseum, a love letter to her own ego. Joining her is a forceful aristocrat with a commanding presence, and an ever put-on commoner who’s the butt of most of the jokes in the play, but who dreams of joining her people outside and burning down the proletariat.
Though Liz Beckham has shown her dramatic chops in previous productions, she surprises here by showing amazing comedic timing. From her twitchy stance to her expressive face, she brings out the laughs with most of her lines. Her physicality is mannered and controlled, with every movement being performed in service of the character and the comedy, and she sells her combination of narcissism and awkwardness with skill. Her discomfort is joined in equal but opposite measure by Kriston Woodreaux’s imposing confidence. He uses his booming baritone and athletic physique to create an overpowering figure, whose charm is matched only by his bravado.
When Lori Navarret first comes on stage, she seems like the meekest of the performers. She brings comedic moments with the rest of them, but it’s not until the final moments of the play that she really gets to shine. The last minutes of the play are taken up entirely by a scathing monologue, reciting entirely by Navarette’s character, putting a lot of pressure on her shoulders. Luckily, she has just the power to carry these last moments of righteous anger, her fury filling the stadium. She never feel preachy, forming the clay of her monologue into intriguing shapes to keeps the audience’s attention. It transports us away from the simple forty-seat black box, on to the blood-stained streets of revolution.
Despite what certain political figures may think, it is the job of successful theatre to not only entertain, but to enrich, to leave its audience changed by the final applause. With “Neva”, Theatre en Bloc has created a work that is not only riotously funny, but also turns a mirror to its audience, making them rethink their place in the world. It’s a delicate balance to hit, but the company pulls it off incredibly well, thanks in no small part by the rounded, determined performances of its cast. It’s a moving and hilarious work, and with the current political climate, its message is more important than ever.
“Neva” runs through March 5th at Santa Cruz Center for Culture. For more information, and to purchase tickets, please visit theatreenbloc.com.