Review: "Meshahnye" at Theater for the New City

Katherine Hebert

  • New York Contributing Critic

A new translation of a Russian classic has made a home off-Broadway and into the thoughts of any audience member lucky enough to snag a ticket before the end of its run. Presented by Double Decker productions, Meshahnye (sometimes translated as “The Philistines”) was the premiere play by socialist realism founder Maxim Gorky.  It follows a family who’s bond rapidly deteriorates as the characters wrestle with a shifting socio-economic climate all while the Russian Revolution and subsequent aftermath looms outside their window.

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A piece that primarily focuses on the generational divide between parent and child. Most of the conflict derives the weight that comes because of this generation gap. Gorky (only 33 upon the play’s publication) made the choice not to blame either party and instead present the flaws in both groups’ ideologies whilst keeping both elder and child in an empathetic light. This all too relatable conflict is aided by Jenny Sterlin’s new translation and direction which manages to breathe new life into a revered classic. While a strong and capable cast pulls off a marathon of a play (clocking in at two and a half hours) which on its own is an impressive feat. Though I should note that the strength of both the text and the cast is so great that  you barely notice the length.

Heading this unit is the family patriarch Bessemenov (portrayed by John Lenartz). Lenartz manages to garner sympathy from the audience by bringing humanity to what is on paper and in the hands of a less capable performer a crotchety curmudgeon. At his side is the phenomenal Isabella Knight portraying Akulina, the matriarch of the family clan. Knight brings a dignified desperation to her character’s feeble attempts at making peace between her husband and children. Her pleas for peace fall upon the deaf ears of her children, the perpetually miserable Tatiana (Annie Nelson) and the often angst-ridden Peter (Thomas Burns Scully). Despite the picture both Gorky’s dialogue and Jenny Sterlin’s translation paint of Tatiana’s mental state, Nelson finds her strongest moments in Tatiana’s silence rather than in her declarations of misery. While Scully’s take on Peter is earnest and endearing with more than a fair share of humor sprinkled in, making what could very easily be an unlikable character charming. Watching the familial chaos unfold is their tenant Teterev (Zenon Zeleniuch) Zeleniuch portrays Teterev with a near devilish glee often deriving pleasure from the family’s plight. But if Teterev is the devil on this family’s metaphorical shoulder than Perchikin the drunken bird-seller serves as their angel. Kenneth Cavett’s Perchikhin is jovial and brings levity to the often grim subject matter. His speeches about his birds as well as requests for connection from the children who once admired him are rapturous and tragic. As these requests are often brushed off or unheard. Another beacon of positivity in an otherwise miserable household is Perchikhin’s daughter Polya (Ninoshka De Leon Gill) who portrayed with a childlike naivete and plucky determination.

Overall Meshahnye is a riveting revelation and sure to strike a chord with anyone who has gone home winter break after spending a semester abroad. Playing at the Theatre for the New City until September 30th this is new interpretation of an all too relevant classic is not one to miss.

Review: “Girl Inside the Mirror” at Theater for the New City

Review: “Girl Inside the Mirror” at Theater for the New City

Last summer, I had the chance to see many of the shows that were participating in the 10th annual Planet Connections Theatre Festivity. There were many intriguing selections, not all of which I had the chance to see, unfortunately. Among such shows which I had been hoping to see, at the time, was Girl Inside the Mirror, a new theatre-dance piece from writer/director Nicoletta Mandriotti. Thankfully, however, I recently had the chance to see it during its second run at Theater for the New City – as part of their annual Dream Up festival – upon being invited to review the show.

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Review: “The Haunted Train” at Theater for the New City

Nickolaus Hines

A warm wave of perfect harmony splashes over the audience as soon as the lights signal the start of “The Haunted Train,” a new musical that questions the treatment of mental health patients. The eerie blue lighting and cinderblock basement in the lowest stage at Theater for the New City is haunting with a sparse set reminiscent of a jail cell and lined by the five person cast in the opening number.

Seconds into the start of the act and it’s clear that a crew of unusually good singers will be guiding the audience through the story with vocal arrangements by Trevor Pierce.

The cinderblock and exposed pipe just add to the overall mood of the musical and if the metal frame bed and bare sink next to a basic toilet were staged on an all black traditional stage it would feel just as strange as if a character were missing. Writers Christian Fleming and Randy Lee Gross have created a very pointed musical that doesn’t conceal a social agenda behind metaphors or even the masterful voices. The questionnaire and the Q&A at the end of the show say everything that needs to be said about that message.

That doesn’t mean people who typically avoid shows with a particularly strong agenda should stay away. On the contrary, this show may make even the staunchest opponent a believer that agendas can be packaged in an appealing musical.

“The Haunted Train” follows the path of Cloyd, played by Jarrad Green, as he struggles to be released from a mental facility and the damaging electroconvulsive therapy treatments administered by Dr. Barnes, played by Michael Cusimano. Not helping his case is a ghost named Gizzard, played by J.D. Killikelly, who was a wrongly imprisoned Civil Rights marcher now staying on this planet to make sure her truth gets told.

Fighting, unsuccessfully, on the side of Cloyd is social worker Rosemary, played by Lindsay Lerner, and journalist Solomon, played by Jessie MacBeth.

The music and lyrics, written by Christopher Anselmo, are critical to the piece. It moves the story forward, but more than that, it almost comes off as a set of musical numbers interrupted by lines. These aren’t frivolous refrains either, each character has a natural complexity explored through the book and lyrics, all in a tight 100 minute, no intermission run. 

Yes, Cloyd is being wrongfully treated, but he has his reasons why he is interned. The effects of the electroconvulsive therapy are so strikingly obvious it’s hard not to wonder if they keep Green locked up and only let him out for show time. His voice is comparable to Jason Mraz and his constantly twitching hands and feet would be comfortable side by side to a jackhammer without an off switch. He commands each scene, but the natural ebb and flow between him and Killikelly’s ghost set up some of the strongest moments.

Having a “ghost” on stage that the audience can obviously see but only one character can see nearly the entirety of the play comes with a whole set of challenges. It’s not only well handled, but believable as well. When Killikelly breaks out into a soulful song called “Hit The Rails,” everything else at that moment is superfluous. The ghost’s position in the musical, in part, is to compare the fight during the Civil Rights movement with the civil rights of mental patients.

The side conflicts between Rosemary and Solomon and Rosemary and Dr. Barnes add a different edge and perspective. The character studies of Rosemary’s approach to helping Cloyd versus Solomon’s approach is a story in itself, and their conflict over treatment is one of the strongest in the show. 

Dr. Barnes encapsulates everything that is easy to dislike about strong doctor characters. Don’t write him off, however. Look closely, if only to admire Cusimano’s performance, and the character of Dr. Barnes is deeper than expected.

Passions flare toward the end of the play and the agenda pushing goes from gentle to aggressive. The ending is almost flat, partly because the completion of the musical comes close to playing second fiddle to getting out the message, which is difficult to accept because of how powerful and engaging the story is.

As for the actors: keep an eye out for their names on play bills because every time the chance to hear each one of their voices is missed is one time too many.