Stage Door Review

The Russian Play

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

✭✭

by Hannah Moscovitch, directed by Diana Donnelly

Shaw Festival, Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake

May 25-October 13, 2019

Sonya: “So why is play still going on?”

The lunchtime play this year at the Shaw Festival is The Russian Play, an early play by the prolific, multi-award-winning Canadian playwright Hannah Moscovitch. Written in 2006, the one-acter is only Moscovitch’s second play and shows none of the complexity that marks her later work. 

The character Sonya (Gabriella Sundar Singh), who acts as both narrator and main character of the play, asks the audience why they should see a play by a Russian author like Chekhov or Tolstoy because they are so depressing. Then she proceeds to tell and act in a story that is also depressing. Moscovitch may think she is satirizing Russian drama but because her play includes so much narration it seems much more like she is satirizing Russian literature in general. To do so, of course, requires gross generalizations about what Russia and Russian literature is like and that is exactly what Moscovitch gives us. 

In a small town in Stalinist Russia, Sonya, a flower seller, falls in love with Piotr (Peter Fernandes) a gravedigger. Things go well since people naturally buy flowers on their way to a funeral, until Sonya discovers both that she is pregnant and that Piotr has a wife in Moscow. Piotr says he was previously an orderly in a hospital and will try to perform an abortion. Since orderlies have no medical training and since Piotr looks set to perform the abortion by mechanical means, the facts that he is successful and that Sonya is alive following the procedure are extremely improbable.

Since everyone in the town knows what happens, they regard Sonya as damaged goods. She loses her job and moves to Smolensk. There she becomes the mistress of Kostya (Mike Nadajewski), a man with connections to the secret police. He, too, is married, but, worse than this, Kostya realizes that Sonya does not love him. Things continue to disimprove until they reach a surprise ending that has nothing to do with love or with Sonya’s personality. 

Since Moscovitch’s play lacks inevitability, it is neither a good imitation of Russian literature (she ignores the concept of “Chekhov’s gun”) nor a good satire of it. Moscovitch has created a mildly amusing but pointless piece that tells us nothing about love, Russia or theatre.

What the play does provide is an excellent showcase for the acting ability of Gabriella Sundar Singh, who positively shines in the role of Sonya. She has mastered a fine Russian accent and the fake broken English that Moscovitch uses to indicate that Sonya is a Russian speaker with limited English. Sonya’s cynicism and her low English proficiency are meant to generate humour. But why writer of play think broken English so funny? Nevertheless, Singh establishes an immediate rapport with the audience and is so engaging we sympathize with her character even if Sonya’s story is clichéd.

Peter Fernandes is also sympathetic as Piotr although he hasn’t bothered to master a Russian accent. Mike Nadajewski makes a strong impression in his brief appearances as Kostya, finally displaying the steeliness we feared lurked beneath his sentimental regard for Sonya.

Director Diana Donnelly has added a fourth performer, Marie Mahabel, a violinist who follows Sonya about and seems to express in music feelings that Sonya cannot express in words. This is most effective in the harrowing scene of Sonya’s abortion where the screaming of Mahabel’s violin takes the place of Sonya’s unimaginable thoughts. Otherwise, Mahabel’s presence as an alienation device, an idea Donnelly perhaps borrowed from the musician present in Moscovitch’s 2014 play Infinity, is unnecessary since Sonya already directly addresses the audience. 

Donnelly’s use of the flower imagery, manifest in the floral mounds of Gillian Gallow’s set, is also completely unclear. If it simply means the flower girl is like a flower, it is a cliché. If it means that life is fleeting, it is also a cliché.

It is very strange that the Shaw Festival should choose to programme a fake Russian one-act play by a contemporary Canadian author when there are so many real Russian one-act plays by Russian authors that it has not explored. In 2006 the Festival staged Chekhov’s short plays The Bear (1888) and The Proposal (1890) under the title Love Among the Russians. Chekhov, whom Moscovitch presumptuously has Sonya dismiss, wrote eight other short plays that the Festival has yet to explore. Why give us an imitation Russian play when it could have given us the real thing?

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Peter Fernandes as Piotr and Gabriella Sundar Singh as Sonya; Mike Nadajewski as Kostya and Gabriella Sundar Singh as Sonya. © 2019 David Cooper.

For tickets, visit www.shawfest.com.