by Hazen Cuyler
The Russian Arts Theater and Studio is led by one of the most imaginative and unique directors working in New York City, Aleksey Burago. Additionally, he just so happens to be one of the foremost experts on Anton Chekhov. I recently saw a Russian Arts show alongside a prominent theatre actor and director. Afterward, he said to me, “I could see 1,000 shows and I would be able to immediately pick out the one directed by Aleksey Burago.” Lady with a Lapdog and Other Jokes with a Happy Ending staged at Theatre for The New City and running through March 10th, is a deeply funny love song. A masterclass in guiding extremely talented actors into a work of art no one should miss.
The play follows a man vacationing in Yalta. He becomes fascinated by a woman walking her small dog near a pier. They quickly become intertwined in a passionate affair. Their time vacationing comes to an end. But of course the love affair carries on. Leading to the most difficult decision of their lives. Seamlessly woven between these passionate encounters are many iconic Chekhov short stories.
Before I continue. I must clarify the significance in labeling Lady with a Lapdog with Jokes and a Happy Ending a work of art. It is a masterpiece created by an important artist of our generation. And so, this review reflects that grand achievement.
Di Zhu, playing the title character, is one of the finest actors working in independent theatre. She not only captures meaningful contradictions in every character she plays, but does so with a level of joy too rarely seen in theatre today. Her Anna is no exception. She brings sharp nuance to Chekhov’s work, allowing audiences to discover new meaning within his sensational classic.
Tom Schubert, as Dmitri, is the charming and bold force guiding us. Not only is his electric acting on display, but his vocal expertise as well. One doesn’t immediately think of Amy Winehouse when considering Chekhov. But when Mr. Schubert sings “Back to Black,” he is so connected to its relevance within the circumstances that we nearly forget it wasn’t Chekhov’s original intent.
Ariel Polanco can only be described as show-stopping. His profound grace and versatility as a remarkable actor and dancer make up so many parts of this astounding production. His final movement and dance piece is an achievement. It could easily be celebrated as its own show.
Michael Dona’s characters are diverse and entirely hilarious. Never will you see a more talented actor capable of doing so much with silence. Because of his clear reverence and joy for each character, the audience remains transfixed with a deep sense of gratitude.
Lana Stimmler is incredibly funny in everything she does on this stage. It’s remarkable how consistently she can elicit belly laughs from the audience while maintaining the absolute heightened truth in her circumstances.
Luisa Menzen warms the audience like a summer’s day. Her work in each scene is intricate and heartfelt. When she smiles, it is impossible not to feel joy. When she sits atop a lonely, snowy hill, looking down at everything a sled cannot give her, your heart has no choice but to shatter and melt away. In an astounding act of theatrical magic, she stands under a pillar of falling snow. Trapped within memory’s snow globe; encased in time. The soft elegance and beauty in her gentle movements will remain imprinted within you.
Conor Andrew Hall is a powerful and versatile actor. In “A Little Joke,” a young man is doomed to regret his unfortunate joke played on a beautiful girl. Mr. Hall aptly captures a commanding and youthful naiveté. With a smile, he reveals how love and regret dance together in life.
Flavio Romeo’s unique vocal clarity and physical presence fills the large space. Whether playing a dentist or a general, the bold strength of his characters leave lasting impressions.
Conducting this work is the profound director, Aleksey Burago. Like any great artist, his ideas are to be wrestled with. The feelings he evokes in this production resound within the reaches of your soul; forever changing you into a better, more compassionate person full of humor and love.
If you believe in theatre as art, then Lady is a must-see. Do not miss your chance to witness this important work. Chekhov is cherished by so many for his convention-shattering ideas as well as his simplicity. That he has found such an excellent partner in The Russian Arts Theater and Studio is certainly a happy ending.
Photos: Jared Biunno
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