Yale Repertory Theatre, New Haven
How long has it been since you’ve seen a laugh-out-loud show? How long since every moment carried you from irrepressible chuckles to guffaws?
Get ready for that kind of experience at Yale Rep, where director Evan Yionoulis and her team never miss a beat. “Black Snow” is a hilarious send-up of the theater world (19th century Russia in this case) and the tribulations of one Russian playwright.
Yet the show could easily have been a Russian muddle. For starters, there is the difficulty of sorting out Russian names and nicknames (consider any Dosteovsky novel). But this is further complicated by “Black Snow” being a play about a novel made into a play (which in turn is based on a novel written about a book being changed into a play). It calls to mind those inter-nesting dolls which the Russians sell to tourists.
Specifically, playwright Keith Reddin has adapted the unfinished theatrical novel “Black Snow” written by the Russian novelist Mikhail Bulgakov. It depicts Bulgakov’s own outrageous experiences with the Moscow Art Theatre and its famous founder/director Konstantin Stanislavsky. In these thinly-veiled portraits Bulgakov becomes Sergei Leontievich Maxudov and Stanislavsky becomes Ivan Vasilievich.
Yionoulis is blessed with a stellar cast, a working ensemble, which she puts through its paces with the precision of a Russian ballet. All characters, Sergei’s friends, competitors and colleagues, are played over the top, and with impeccable timing. Sergei himself, brilliantly portrayed by Adam Stein, is a timid, sensitive soul, offering a tabula rasa to the colorful creatures around him. He is a lost soul, a Kafkaesque figure, totally muddled by his surroundings. That is, until driven by fury and despair, he finally lashes out.
Equally brilliant is his partner in crime, namely Alvin Epstein playing the autocratic, much-worshipped artistic director Vasilievich (read—Stanislavsky). Epstein/Vasilievich does not appear until the second act, but his shadow hovers over the entire first act. When he finally appears in a cloud of smoke (like the Wizard in “The Wizard of Oz”), he is truly daunting. From then on, it is Epstein’s show, as all his adoring sycophants pay homage. He is a dapper, elegant little man, who hears no one but himself. His foolish critiques are handed down from on high, like the words of God.
In our view, the first act is stronger, and Yionoulis tends to milk the humor too much in the second act. For instance, when Epstein bursts into derisive laughter, it lasts too long. And the Stanislavsky exercises performed by the company last a shade too long.
But these are minor quibbles. Under Yionoulis’s unerring direction, Epstein and Stein give performances of a lifetime, with the entire show proving to be a treasure. “Black Snow” is a joy rarely experienced on these Connecticut stages.
-- Irene Backalenick
Dec. 9, 2006