The Russian Play at The Shaw Festival – A Review

A “like-a-joke” is a dismissive term of art in the world of TV sitcoms. It denotes a snippet of dialog that is structured like a joke, that is recognized as a joke, that triggers the laugh track, but that is not actually funny. To my way of thinking Hannah Moscovitch writes like-a-plays. I should temper that nasty crack by admitting that I have only seen two of her plays, The Russian Play and Bunny. Neither seemed to have much of interest to say.

The Russian Play, now playing as a morning one-act in the Royal George Theatre at The Shaw Festival, tells the story of Sonya (Gabriella Sundar Singh), an illiterate peasant girl working as a menial in a Stalin-era flower shop. She falls in love with Piotr (Peter Fernandes), a grave digger, who gets her pregnant and, thoughtfully, gives her an abortion and helps bury the fetus. She discovers that Piotr has a wife in Moscow and to add insult to injury she gets fired for spending so much time with her grave digger. She flees to another city where she becomes the mistress of Kostya (Mike Nadajewski), a kulak, a member of a wealthy peasant class, who has dodged the Stalinist purges of these ”enemies of the people” by cozying up to the secret police. When the affair goes sour, Sonya finds herself in the clutches of the secret police; she is tortured and sent to prison where she reconnects with Piotr who is now kept busy digging graves for the ever growing ranks of state enemies. Piotr tells her that his wife is dead and that she is the only one he loves. She dies in his arms and he buries her. A sad tale, indeed; a peculiarly Russian story as Sonya tells us.

You see Sonya also serves as both narrator and commentator on the action, breaking the fourth wall with some regularity to provide us with regular often amusing bulletins. Another, wordless character, the Violinist (Marie Mahabal) serves as an additional commentator, perhaps meant to symbolize Sonya’s inner self. When Sonya’s heart breaks, the Violinist shakes a box full of fragments of something or other and bangs it on the floor. The cast, for reasons that were unclear to me, speak in thick Russian accents. These devices tend to drain the main action of whatever emotional impact it might otherwise have had.

So what’s the point? That love stinks? Sonya says as much, but the J. Geils Band said it better. That Stalinist Russia was a nightmare? It needs no ghost come from the grave to tell us this. There’s plenty of sound and fury in Moscovitch’s piece and while she is certainly no idiot it winds up signifying very little.

Director Diana Donnelly has given the play a lively production, with a nice design by Gillian Gallow and effective lighting by Michelle Ramsay. Sundar Singh throws herself into the role of Sonya but has trouble navigating the shifts from character to narrator to ironic commentator and back again. She is at her best in the brief moments in which she mimics her cruel boss at the flower shop. Mike Nadajewski turns in his usual assured performance as Kostya but it is too little too late.

The Russian Play was an early effort by Moskovitch, one that established her reputation. It shows promise and I look forward to seeing a later play of hers in which that promise is realized.

The Russian Play runs through October 12, 2019

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