nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 4, 2008
It begins in a Russian forest near St. Petersburg in 1913. Two men are about to fight a duel. We don't yet know who they are and don't know what they're dueling about. One of them—the second to arrive—has lost one of his boots. The duel must be postponed...at least until the missing shoe is found.
This terrific, tantalizing, funny first scene—one of the best first scenes of a play in recent memory—kicks off Paul Cohen's delightful Cherubina. And, surprise: it turns out, for all its eccentricity and improbability, to be almost verbatim truth; Cohen has based his play on incidents in the lives of real people, and this (according to Wikipedia) is one that really happened. I was hooked.
Flashback to a few months before the duel. Elisa is a schoolteacher and a poet; she yearns for publication and recognition of her talent, and she yearns for a romantic life that a long-ago illness has, she believes, denied her (she has a crippled leg and constantly calls herself ugly). Her best friend, Max, works for a literary journal called Apollon. His boss, Nikolai, is a poet himself and an editor; when we first see him at work, he is rejecting Elisa's latest submission to the magazine. Max breaks the news to Elisa at her home later on, and while he's consoling her, the two hatch a plan to get Elisa published and make a fool out of Nikolai.
And so Cherubina de Gabriak is born. The name is one Elisa invented for a childhood imaginary friend. She is now envisioned as a glamorous woman of the world, half French and half Russian, an enigmatic beauty who breaks hearts regularly and (of course) writes poetry. Elisa sends Cherubina's first poem to Nikolai, and with some encouragement from Max, who says he vaguely remembers hearing scandalous things about her from an Austrian friend, Nikolai becomes instantly smitten. He publishes the poem and Cherubina becomes the talk of St. Petersburg, even though no one has actually met her.
And then Nikolai becomes obsessed with his phantom poetess; he falls in love with her. And Cherubina—Elisa—finds herself falling in love with Nikolai.
But Cohen hasn't merely written a Shop Around the Corner-style romance of mistaken identity; his play gives equal weight to the celebrity culture that existed a hundred years ago in Russia and still exists everywhere today. Some of my favorite moments in the play detail the "Cherubina sightings" at parties and even in people's dimly remembered pasts. It's brilliantly incisive satire.
Cohen, whose work I have not seen before, is a definite find: the play is smart, funny, touching, and entirely entertaining. Alexis Poledouris's realization of the piece feels flawless, with a quick, breezy pace that never once flags and yet never gives short shrift to the very real and heartfelt emotions that underlie the story. Gina Scherr's simple unit set doubles as both Elisa's parlor and Nikolai's office effortlessly; Poledouris moves the play's three characters into and out of this room with uncanny precision that always lets us know where we are and never allows our interest to waver. Zane Pihlstrom's period costumes and Mark Valadez's evocative lighting complete the stage pictures nicely.
Amanda Fulks (Elisa), Jimmy Owens (Max), and Teddy Bergman (Nikolai) offer fine performances; Bergman is especially memorable as the lovestruck poet overcome with feeling for his mystery woman.
Cherubina is one of the most entertaining and well-crafted new plays I've seen this season. I highly recommend it! But don't look up the true story in Wikipedia until after you've seen it—Cohen has been faithful to his singular source material, and you don't want any of its surprises spoiled until they've played out for you on stage in this delightful production.