nytheatre.com review by Matt Johnston
October 12, 2006
My personal love of Russian drama often leads me to excitement when I find rarely produced works popping up in New York from some of the country's best. Such an impulse came upon me with Vassa Zheleznova by Maxim Gorky, a contemporary of Chekhov and a highly respected dramatist. The play is infused with dramatic tension, and a sensibility unique to Russian theatre of the time (written in 1909), but I am sad to report that this production from Horizon Theatre Rep left much to be desired.
The play revolves around a mother, Vassa, living in a house with her children, suppressing and trapping them inside this world she has created. The family business is about to hit a turning point as Vassa's husband is on his deathbed and each child is due (or so they think) a share of the company. As the play moves along, this troubled household digs a grave for itself, swarmed by unhappiness and impossible ambitions, leading up to a climactic ending where our provincial matriarch reveals her own ambitions, and sends things swirling into an altogether different direction.
The play is interesting and powerful, not to mention progressive for its time in highlighting Vassa's strength as the female head of the household. It does, though, feel much like a museum piece, which has a fair amount to do with the uncomfortable and distanced translation, as well as the stuffy period staging. In the end I generally felt as if the production lacked a zeal needed to mount a work already so far removed from a contemporary audience's scope of perception.
Most of the performances in the production felt almost mechanical in their embodiment of these roles, as if their enactment of this piece was more of a wax museum than live theatre. I couldn't understand the air of lethargy that permeated the stage even in the tensest of the play's moments. Unfortunately, this description also lends itself to the work of Susan Romanoff, in the role of Vassa, who did not seem able to find ways to lend a pointy edge to such a sharp character. The notable exceptions are Jacob Knoll as the crippled and intensely depressed Pavel, and Laura Marks as Anna in a textured and sensitive performance.
For the most part, the staging baffled me. There were more than a few scenes where Gorky has built the dramatic tension to a peak and the staging took the moment away from me as an audience member, with the central character facing upstage or obscured behind a piece of the set. My intuition tells me that there is still a way to drive power and heart through the annals of this complex play, but this production, unfortunately, was unable to probe into that place. The result made the experience feel dated and uninspired.