nytheatre.com review by Alex Rubin
July 24, 2012
Theatre has a responsibility to ask questions—big, mean, scary questions—and audiences and practitioners alike are sometimes faced with the biggest, meanest, most scary question of all: does the art we love have a purpose? Can a play, regardless of its origin, transcend boundaries and say something universal? For artists, this can be a slippery slope of explaining without pandering; of representing without misrepresenting. In the New York premiere of Black Milk, Palo de Agua and High Stakes Theater succeed in a universal analysis of the human condition.
Black Milk, by Russian playwright Vassily Sigarev (translated by Sasha Dugdale) and directed by Michel Hausmann, chronicles the lives of small-time crook Lyovchik (Josh Marcantel) and his pregnant wife Poppet (Liba Vaynberg) as they wait at a train station in a desolate village in post-Communist Russia. After swindling the poor villagers of their finances by selling them useless toasters, the couple sit at the decrepit station, waiting endlessly for a train to take them back to the city ("civilization," as Lyovchik calls it). As the hours inch by, Lyovchik and Poppet are forced to confront several harsh realities, ranging from the townspeople whom they have ripped off, to the emotional distance in their relationship, to the demons living within their souls (and, by extension, the souls of all mankind).
Designers Ika Avaliani and Courtney Wrenn's set construction situates us perfectly within the world of the story, making fantastic use of simplicity to reveal a deeply complex history—from the worn and forgotten tile floor to the sheet metal fence peppered with faded posters, everything functions to give a haunting sense of a community left behind. Combine this with Yuki Nakase's seamless lighting design of pale bright whites and we are firsthand witnesses of a world devoid of life.
The design lends itself well to a story just as harrowing. Vaynberg and Marcantel valiantly carry the story, humbly depicting their characters in a script that alludes to larger-than-life themes. Vaynberg excels in her role of an abrasive young woman yearning for a long-lost innocence. A tall order for any performer, she delivers impressively in her off-Broadway debut with a character whose thoughts are so entangled, whose story so huge. Equally, Marcantel puts on full display the menacing nature of his character, allowing the two actors to engage in a high-octane (and at times, twisted) power play, fraught with a thorny set of ideals in an altogether miserable existence.
While the bulk of the play's action centers on the couple, the audience is privy to magnetic performances from Anna Wilson (the train station clerk and resident vodka distiller), John Brambery (a timid yet unstable townsperson), Emily Ward (a poor, elderly woman hoping for money to bury her "old man") and Rachel Murdy (an altruist, and perhaps the mother Poppet never had). Each of the actors makes a powerful splash in the dark, murky pools that form around Lyovchik and Poppet's world, expertly delivering their respective quirks and eccentricities in ways that are honest, effective and accurately placed, succeeding in painting a picture of the village as possibly the last bastion of goodness in a society left to wolves.
What is missing, however, is Lyovchik's arc. In his director's note, Hausmann likens Sigarev to a new Tennessee Williams, and I would agree in that Williams never wrote simple characters. While Marcantel brings a raw power to his performance, I would be very interested to see the character's finer points. Right now, I understand that Lyovchik reeks of danger, but his development does not venture far enough from its starting point. If he is the voice who explains the world not as we wish to see it, but as it is, then I need to get a glimpse of how and why he became so jaded. The script provides some background information in this regard, but the full realization of Lyovchik may come from seeing his struggle rather than just hearing it.
For the most part, the play thrives in its ability to stick to authentic storytelling, but at certain points the action is lost to emotional spectacle. Credit to the actors for making brave choices in these moments, but the transitions into high emotion can feel somewhat overwrought, serving to remove me from the place I have been so skillfully brought into. Such a barrier can be useful, and at times vital, in order to keep in mind the performative nature, but not at the expense of moving the story forward. I feel to keep these moments from falling victim to emotional display, Hausmann must put more faith in his audience.
Black Milk is a strong piece of theatre, taking its audience headfirst into a deserted wasteland of fear, confused morals and a profound fall from purity. With resonating performances, impeccable design and a truthful directorial vision, the piece earns its title as it shows the outcome of a world gone cold, leaving a mother's milk—the basis of life—corrupted, perhaps in the end by a God who is merely playing a cruel, cruel joke.