BWW Review: First Hand Theatrical Stages Thoroughly Captivating AND THEN WHAT? THE CHILDREN OF VELVEL AND SHEINA-GITEL AVERBUKH
When Bena Shklyanoy set out to record her family history, she anticipated a small-scale project that would take perhaps a day or two to complete. She traced the branches of her immediate family tree and identified loved ones depicted in keepsake photographs, intending to pass cherished stories and memories on to her own daughters. But as each name and snapshot led to a new trail of inquiry, Shklyanoy's research blossomed, and her work came to span more than a decade of investigation and discovery.
What began as a small personal remembrance yielded not only an impressive, comprehensive family memoir, but also a rich historical record of the experiences of Jewish families both in Tsarist Russia and under Soviet rule. Shklyanoy knew her findings went far and away beyond the original scope of the project and, to establish a permanent public record of her research, she published her family stories, along with her own remembrances of growing up in the Soviet Union, on a fully interactive website: www.appledoesnotfall.com.
The creation of the website led to an additional, unexpected development in telling Shklyanoy's remarkable story. Kevin Olson, Artistic Director of Rhode Island's First Hand Theatrical, read through the materials posted online and saw the potential for sharing this history in yet another form: on stage. Olson's spark of inspiration, followed by his close collaboration with Shklyanoy, resulted in And Then What? The Children of Velvel and Sheina-Gitel Averbukh, now enjoying a limited run of workshop performances at AS220 in Providence.
First Hand Theatrical, under Olson's direction, fashioned a jewel in And Then What? and this production captivates from the moment the first lines are spoken. The storytelling stems primarily from the lives of Shklyanoy's grandmother Polina and Polina's brothers and sisters - the seven surviving children of Velvel and Sheina-Gitel Averbukh. This generation saw the fall of Imperial Russia, lived through the Bolshevik Revolution, and endured the horrors of two world wars. Their children and grandchildren grew up behind the Iron Curtain.
The family's history unfolds through the recounting of joyous celebrations, the explanation of bygone social customs, the sharing of laughter-filled memories, and recollections of the bitterest heartbreak and tragedy. And The What? is that rare piece of theater that truly touches every emotion; guaranteed, you won't find a dry eye in the house by the time the curtain falls.
Katya Ginzburg-Bram plays Bena and serves as narrator for the piece, tracing Shklyanoy's journey of discovery and acting as a conduit to reach back into the past. As Ginzburg-Bram writes and speaks the names of the Averbukh children, other actors appear from the wings of the theater to form a semicircle behind her. These performers visibly represent Bena's family members for the audience, but they also form a gathering of ancestors surrounding Bena, invisible to her as she begins to relate their stories. Though their generation has passed, their love and influence remain, and the lives they lived continue to resonate today. This simple but incredibly powerful image suggests a touchpoint between the past and present as it sets the tone for the entire production.
And this production is first rate in every aspect. Ginzburg-Bram shines as Bena, and Erin Archer (Polina), Mark Bram (Avrum), Victoria Jessop (Esther), Gershon Levine (Leib), Steven Pennell (Kutsya), Amy Olson (Dinah), and Shanna Wells (Khanah) turn in one of the finest ensemble cast performances of 2017. These actors go beyond simple characterization in their portrayals; each performer fully inhabits a voice from the past, allowing the narrative to unfold through the siblings' own words.
While the characters stand out as individuals and their life experiences take them in various directions, small mannerisms or turns of phrase clearly unite them as a family - especially in the repetition of their father's famed motto, "Suppose you prevail. And then what?" These words of wisdom unite generations, spanning the branches of the Averbukh family tree. In several scenes, Bena also mimics the same small gestures that were habitual to her great aunts and uncles.
The apple doesn't fall far, after all.
And Then What? is presented as Reader's Theater (a style that works incredibly well for this piece), and elegant blocking allows subtle interplay between the actors, and between the past and present, as each narrative unfolds. Poignant verses and excerpts from poetry allow the actors to step partially out of character to conclude their segments, and these moments serve as fitting transitions between the siblings' stories.
The staged reading format provides for simple costuming and set pieces, but every item on stage is employed to perfection. At the rear of the performance space, a projection screen displays Shklyanoy's family photos, the faces of the real-life Averbukh siblings coming into focus as the actors introduce them and their stories. The slides also provide contextual historical images, ranging from the family's rooms in communal housing to newspaper clippings and propaganda flyers.
This piece excels in every point. It boasts an outstanding cast and creative team, an engaging and absorbing history, and spot-on production values. And Then What? is well-deserving of a fully mounted production; in fact, plans are in the works to debut a full staging in Shklyanoy's hometown of Chicago in 2018. In the meantime, Rhode Island audiences shouldn't miss First Hand's remaining workshop performances, playing this weekend only at AS220.
First Hand Theatrical's staged reading of And Then What? The Children of Velvel and Sheina-Gitel Averbukh plays a limited engagement at AS220's Black Box, 95 Empire Street, Providence, Rhode Island. Performances run through Sunday, July 16, 2017. Tickets are available at the door for a donation of $10.
For additional information on the And Then What? project, visit www.fracturedatlas.org/site/fiscal/profile?id=10757.
Bena Shklyanoy's research and family history are available online at www.appledoesnotfall.com.
Photography by Bert Silverberg.