From Russia With Love…And Laughter
Growing up in Hawai’i, my personal interactions with things Russian have been few and far between (see Boris and Natasha from The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends, and the admiral guy in the battlecruiser in Starcraft). This past year, though, I’ve had a lot more exposure to things that are Russian, like seeing Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 on Broadway, portraying Semyon in Chekov’s The Seagull, and catching Hawai’i Opera Theatre’s closing performance of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. But, perhaps my favorite interaction with things Slavic thus far in my life has been savoring Mid-Pacific School of the Arts (MPSA) Theatre Department’s production of Mikhail Bulgakov’s Black Snow, on its opening night.
In Black Snow, (adapted by Keith Reddin, based on the satirical A Theatrical Novel by Bulgakov), the MPSA students of Mid-Pac, under the captivating direction of Alex Monti Fox, took me on a journey into the totally-foreign-to-me world of the Russian literati of the early twentieth century. The story follows a writer, Sergei Leontievich Maxudov (Christian Caro) who tries to get his novel published in Stalinist Russia. Puns, comic obstacles, and visual gags (including a wonderful furry animal made by Prop Master John Wat) impede Maxudov’s ambitions, in a show that’s not just poking fun at the political world, but also the theatrical world of its day.
A lovely picture of Joseph Stalin hangs in the background of R. Andrew Doan’s economic set, looking down on cast and audience alike throughout the show. I loved the stage within the stage in the upstage stage in this set. Understand? If you see the show, you will. Anyway, gorgeous lights enhance Maxudov’s world with design by the wonderful Cora Yamagata. The subdued costume design by Athena S. Keehu are period-appropriate, and the hair and make up design by Natalie Borsky, Rachel Schulman, and Nicole Tsuda is helpful to distinguish the numerous characters the actors portray (everyone portrays at least three characters: hats off to the cast for this feat).
A few characters I was particularly taken by was a brother-in-law in a red hat, who had me rolling, and a Fat Man who whispers, who also delighted me. Also of note is Luke Kenton-Cashion’s portrayal of Ivan Vasilievich (a parody of Stanislavski), the famed director of the fictional Independent Theatre (who I could have sworn at one point in the second act was wearing an outfit straight out of the closet of Dr. Paul Cravath, my college acting teacher). Christian Caro and Kelsi Julian-Araki both show depth in their exploration of the art of acting, giving some gravity and humanity in the chaotic world their characters inhabit in this piece. Choral movement sections and other choreography by Camryn-Jaye Matsumoto and Zoe Nigg were beautiful, gentle, contrasting touches to a story filled with sometimes raucous activity. Oh, and if you don’t feel like you’re in Russia from any of the above reasons, I’m sure Fox’s sound design will usher you right in (whether you like it or not, comrade).
I can’t imagine doing this piece when I was in high school. But I just saw it done by high-schoolers, and beautifully done, by talented young adults. The writing is sharp, the satire is biting, and the production was a satisfying night out at the theater with friends. If you don’t care for Russian things or don’t know Pushkin from Tolstoy, don’t worry, it’s still a fun show even if you don’t know Russian things. I don’t know all the Russian things myself (although I did appreciate a jab at The Seagull), but I still enjoyed it. If you do know Russian things, and you love Russian literature, or history, you should definitely watch this. And if you’re a theater person, you absolutely need to watch this. There’s a whole scene devoted to an overwhelmed box office worker: it’s hilarious. The only thing I would say is I do wish the second act was a little tighter, but I’m confident the students will only make the show better as they keep performing. Black Snow is a must-see. Catch it this weekend, May 4, 5, or 6, 2018, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Call for tickets at 973-5066.
Written by Sean-Joseph Choo.