BWW Review: Theatre En Bloc's NEVA is Must-See Theatre
NEVA is the latest offering from Austin's Theatre En Bloc. Written by Chilean playwright, Guillermo Calderón, this politically charged play is a brutally honest look at the precarious relationship between art, politics, and social justice. Set in Russia at the dawn of the revolution, this explosive production raises more questions than it answers with ferocity and biting humor.
Set in a St. Petersburg theatre in 1905, on what would become known as Bloody Sunday, NEVA tells the story of three actors gathered to rehearse for an upcoming production of Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Tree. One of the production's actors is Chekov's own widow, Olga Knipper (Liz Beckham). Unaware of the violence in the street, Olga is consumed with anxiety over her performance in her late husband's play. As fellow actors, Aleko (Kriston Woodreaux) and Masha (Lori Navarrete) arrive, the still grieving widow instructs the impressionable performers in the re-enactment of scenes from her life with the famed writer. Specifically, his recent demise six months earlier. When not eagerly acting through these over dramatized scenes, the three sporadically perform other Chekhov pieces, squabble over their perceived talents, and gossip about tawdry affairs in the theatre company. As time passes, the grave reality of the world outside the theatre walls begin to weigh down and begs the question, what is the role of art in a world thrown into chaos?
The diverse three-member ensemble brilliantly interprets Calderón's passionate and often humorous words. In the central role of Olga, Liz Beckham's intensity is captivating. Olga's angst-ridden tirades about the fear of public opinion and her own waning artistic ability are laced with absurdity and humor, but also paint the actress as inherently vulnerable. Olga's most ardent admirer, Aleko, played by Kriston Woodreaux, is a young man of privilege that wants to experience hardship for the sake of arT. Woodreaux's commanding presence allows the audience to experience the internal conflicts Aleko faces with his wealthy upbringing and a country on the verge of revolution. Lori Navarrete as Masha is deceptively compliant at first glance but explodes during her fiery final monologue. Navarrete dominates these last moments of the play and forces both the characters and audience to reflect on the priorities and pretenses of art in times of political conflict.
Artistic Director, Jenny Lavery has kept technical elements to a minimum in this production to allow the primary attention to be focused on the actors. Lavery's concise staging demonstrates an ingrained understanding of physical performance. Whether inhabiting the role of a character from Chekhov's life or simply pacing the floor, the actors' bodies are fully engaged throughout the performance. Costuming by Jenny Hanna-Chambers also adds to the production value with period appropriate pieces that are both well fitted to the individual and coordinated in color scheme.
Looking at theatre and the craft of acting in the way they are presented in NEVA can, at times, be uncomfortable. During the majority of the play, audience members must listen and watch the three characters engage in self-absorbed, pretentious dialogue that causes one to occasionally cringe. It is not until Masha's impassioned call to arms that it becomes apparent that the previous exchanges were building to create a vehement culmination.
Given our own country's current condition, this visceral production asks the tough, but timely questions: What is an artist's place during times of political unrest? What stories need to be told? Who needs to tell them? While the production doesn't provide any painless answers, it does give a voice to the concerns expressed by many. For these reasons, NEVA should be experienced by Austinites from all walks of life concerned about the country's current political climate, especially those in the arts community.
NEVA plays February 16th - March 5th, Thursday through Sunday at Santa Cruz Center for Culture (1805 E. 7th Street Austin, TX 78702). All shows begin at 8 pm.
Running time: 90 minutes. No intermission.
Ticket prices: $0 - $70 (Free tickets at every performance)