The Past is Still Ahead
nytheatre.com review by Ivanna Cullinan
December 7, 2007
I'm not quite sure what this highly episodic piece based on the life of Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva hopes to achieve, but neither clarity nor connection seem to be a part of the production's goals. Largely this is due to the meandering of The Past is Still Ahead's script. However, throughout the first act of the performance I saw, the incessant flash photography which took place did not help matters. It was an unrelenting thing of which actors' nightmares are made. No cast, no matter how valiant, can overcome both a weak script and an odd sort of paparazzi-effect with one photographer standing house left next to the stage snapping away as well as another in the back. Sadly, one of the most connected and interesting moments of the night was contributed by the audience member who during intermission nearly came to blows with the front-of-house photographer. Although the photography was much less frequent in the second act, the piece was not able to coalesce, which is a true shame because Tsvetaeva herself had an eventful life and, despite the wandering text, there are occasional flashes of talent within this production.
However, the storytelling resists coherence and flutters from image to image without building upon them. The play opens with Tsvetaeva in a room with a piece of rope, evidently considering suicide. Rainer Maria Rilke enters and, after a brief conversation establishing who he is, together they step aside to watch a short film—for no discernible reason. There are two films within the first act, both true to the period and style of the poet's life, but it is unclear what they are meant to add to this piece as they are montages that mostly repeat the images Tsvetaeva and Rilke have just alluded to in their lines. As this conceit ceases entirely after the midpoint of the first act, the films are perhaps only for atmosphere, but the entire production is rife with such unconnected atmospheric elements.
There is a thoroughly distracting backdrop, which again alludes to the period but is more successful at overwhelming the actors in its design than in framing the play. Characters exist in this piece to add color but not conflict. As a character, Rilke's sole function is to adore Tsvetaeva. The warmth between the two actors is lovely but to what end? He thinks she is grand, she takes comfort in his adoration, and so? Their actual relationship is never clearly stated (passionate correspondence) and while the actors struggle against it, it is merely a device. At one point they almost surmount the difficulty as Tsvetaeva tries desperately to explain to Rilke her attraction to the writer Sofia Parnok, and that tension is manifested in a seduction that Sofia dances to Tsvetaeva's back. However, it is a rare physically engaged moment, as much of the piece only refers to emotions and interactions, and is oblique about the details of some fairly traumatic losses. For example, during a famine, the poet had put her younger daughter in an orphanage under the mistaken impression that she would be better cared for there, but the child subsequently starved. This event is referred to but only as an illustration of Tsvetaeva's pain.
It feels as if while not trying to get caught in details, the play in trying to create a full biography and has ended up full of unexplained and unnecessary references. The piece comes closest to cohesion when it tries to convey the actual conflicts which occurred around the time of her somewhat suspect suicide, but again gets in its own way with detours to create mood moments. At the end, the only resolved illusion is when the Muse, who has been floating on and off throughout to sing, floats in as the angel of death and carries Tsvetaeva away.