Blues for Vasily
Like larger human communities, theater companies have their collective strengths and limitations, their insights and their prejudices. And it's entirely possible that those theaters that survive more than a few seasons often do so because they come to mirror their audiences' characteristics. The Caldwell Theatre Company, long ensconced in Boca Raton, certainly mirrors its community. Its style of theater is decorous; gracious; conscious of tradition, status, and class; and rather conservative in presentation. Sometimes this aesthetic limits Caldwell's play selection -- certainly, much of modern drama reflects a coarse, fast-paced world that the Boca crowd would rather ignore. As a result the Caldwell sometimes serves up some well-produced but tepid fare, and its occasional forays into controversial material rarely show much edge or conviction. But at other times, the Caldwell hits the sweet spot, as the sensibilities of the story, the theater, and its audience harmonize.
That is the case with director Michael Hall's thoroughly agreeable production of Fortune's Fool, by the great nineteenth-century Russian master Ivan Turgenev. The long-lost minor gem was recently brought to Broadway for the first time in a sparkling adaptation by Mike Poulton. Turgenev, who is known chiefly for his novels, also wrote several plays, notably A Month in the Country. In these, his attention to contemporary social issues and his alternation of tragic and comedic tonal elements anticipates Chekhov by nearly half a century. The plays feature an array of character types that often appear in nineteenth-century Russian narrative: the impoverished gentleman, the ambitious urban schemer, the wealthy showoff affecting French sophistication, the graft-addicted overseer. Underlying many of these conventions is a great unease about the immobility of wealth, a problem that seems quite distant from modern America, with its easy access to cash and credit. In czarist Russia, security came mostly from inheritance and partly from real estate. Those lacking one or the other were on shaky ground; those lacking both were utterly without prospects. Onto this canvas, Turgenev painted narratives based on his own personal struggles. Many of his stories circle back on the same themes, such as bad fortune, forbidden passions, thwarted love, and ultimate disappointment.
The play centers on Vasily Kuzovkin, an impoverished aging gentleman who as a young man was cheated of his inheritance. Without means, he was taken in as a youth by a wealthy patron and has lived at the patron's estate ever since. His patron having died, Kuzovkin stayed on into late middle age at the estate, sponging on the family's largess. But now his situation is imperiled by the return of the patron's daughter and heir, Olga, who has brought her new husband, Yeletsky, an ambitious young man who plans to manage the estate. Awaiting their arrival, Kuzovkin is blown about by mixed emotions. He is thrilled to see Olga again, after her seven years' stay in St. Petersburg. But he's fearful that, urged on by Yeletsky, she will show him the door. On the day of her arrival, Kuzovkin's crisis is compounded by the unexpected visit of an intrusive wealthy neighbor, Tropatchov, who decides to manipulate Kuzovkin for his own amusement. Knowing Kuzovkin's weakness for alcohol, Tropatchov tricks him into a drinking bout, then mocks the drunken man for sport. Yeletsky joins in baiting him, but the merriment turns to shock when Kuzovkin lets slip a secret that has profound implications for everyone.
There are a number of reasons to praise the Caldwell's production, first among them John Felix's tour de force performance as Kuzovkin. In his tattered, dusty old suit and with his tottering gait, this Kuzovkin is a sensitive, sad man, inconsequential and harmless. Scuttling around the edges of conversations, awkward when the gathering's attention falls on him, Felix mines this Chaplin-esque tragicomic character for an array of emotional textures. Felix is given excellent support from the Caldwell company, especially from Geoffrey Wade's wolfish Tropatchov, the malicious, dandified neighbor whose penchants include colorful clothes and handsome young attendants. Terrell Hardcastle as the scheming Yeletsky and Dan Leonard as Kuzovkin's gentle friend Ivanov are also solid. But the heart of the play really belongs to Felix and his two extended, emotionally complex scenes in the second act with Lanie MacEwan as Olga, the heiress who was once a child he doted on and who now holds the key to his fate. These scenes, staged and performed with particular grace and emotional effect, reveal the limitations of Fortune's Fool, which touches on profundity but then darts back to more mundane stagecraft. The long story setup -- bustling servants, chatter in anticipation of Olga's arrival, the rounds of onstage eating and drinking -- all feel somewhat routine. And the play's finale, rather than building on the resonance the Kuzovkin/Olga scenes establish, seems instead cursory, shuffling off the characters with dispatch but little inspiration. As a playwright, Turgenev was no Chekhov, but then, few are.
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Michael Hall and company have a field day with this material. The staging, which tends to favor the script's comedic aspects over its melancholy, is briskly paced and filled with carefully detailed moments -- like Tropatchov 's hesitation to shake Kuzovkin's less-than-sanitary proferred hand; a sly comic ballet as the drunken Kuzovkin, in a meandering harangue about his bad fortune, repeatedly drops and recovers his napkin. The Caldwell production team provides solid design support. Tim Bennett's set, a wide veranda behind a two-story country estate, delivers the expansive, spacious feel of established wealth. Estela Vrankovich's costumes range as widely as the characters do, from the drab suits of Kuzovkin and his tattered pal Ivanov to the foppish excesses of Tropatchov. To all, Thomas Salzman's leafy, delicate lighting adds subtle emotional shadings.
Since this is a Russian play, perhaps it's fitting to end on a bittersweet note. The sweet: If you are new to South Florida or haven't caught the Caldwell in a while, now is a good time to drop in on what this company does best. The bitter: If you have been tracking South Florida theater for a while, you will once again find no surprises here. As it is with just about every other company in this area, the Caldwell is all about stylistic consistency, not artistic challenge. With few exceptions, most theaters in this region seem unwilling to experiment or explore new paths, as dozens of companies produce essentially the same realistic, linear narrative style, with much the same expectations and assumptions. Puppets? Dance theater? Mixed media? Site-specific scenarios? Postmodernism? Grand Guignol? Rarely will you find unusual or innovative work here and hardly ever at a theater with any means. But this is where we came in: It is entirely possible that the lock-step conformism of many Florida theaters is an essential characteristic of the community they serve.
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