Artists are often forced to make compromises for the sake of survival. While quietly working in obscurity, pursuing their passion for creative expression, they seek some small recognition for their work. The striving for recognition and hopefully some measure of success often requires many different types of jobs in order to make ends meet. In the best circumstances, these jobs may be related to their artistic passion. For example, a painter or sculptor may work in an advertising agency as an art director or a writer as a copywriter. Others may take any job, a waiter, a carpenter, a teacher, something that will help them pay the bills while they pursue their art.
Darkness of Light: Confessions of a Russian Traveler, written and directed by Michael Mailer and Alexander Kaletski, is a story of an artist’s journey from the restrictions of one political and economic system to the compromises needed in a more open and accepting system. It explores how a Russian artist, Nikolai Rodnin (Jonathan Glass), tries to hold onto the truth of his artistic expression while dealing with the material needs for survival. An important, subtle, and contrasting story is that of his brother Sergei Rodnin (Alex Yuille).
As the play opens, Nikolai Rodnin, an artist from the former Soviet Union, tells us that the story he is about to tell is how he came to be the artist he is today. He explains that second only to his artistic passion was his desire for women and sex. We learn that that desire was both his inspiration and his downfall.
The story flashes back twenty years to Moscow before the Great Soviet Dis-Union. It was a time of widespread unrest in the artistic communities, many of which operated secretively, away from the government’s watchful eye. Nikolai and his brother Sergei (one of four very different characters played by Yuille) meet with Max (Christopher Pasi), a businessman and black marketer, at his apartment to get help setting up an exhibit of dissident artists’ work. We discover that Sergei is an artist trained in a Soviet-approved art school. We also find that he has reservations about the planned dissident art exhibit. After discussing the cost of Max’s help, Sergei and Max leave to finalize the details.
At this point in the play, women come into Nikolai’s life, the first being Anya (Sarah Debaets), a poet and Max’s girlfriend. She reads poetry to Nikolai while he is seducing her with kisses and caresses, and it all ends with their having sex and then his leaving the apartment. This sexual theme is used throughout the play in different ways but with the same purpose; sex as currency for some advantage for Nikolai. Although he claims that women are the inspirations for his art, in reality, he is attracted by what advantage a relationship with any given woman can provide him.
These liaisons range from the commandant of the prison camp he is sent to after being arrested at the dissident art show to two women he meets on a street in Rome after being exiled from the Soviet Union; to an editor of a major art magazine he meets in Amsterdam; and then to a major art collector in Paris, ending with his travels in New York. All of these encounters are critical to his artistic sensibilities, but they are corrupting influences on those sensibilities.
Sex is a distraction from the creative turmoil surrounding his artistic impulses, although Nikolai makes it seem as if it is a critical component of his successful advancement. The truth is that the story of his sexual adventures is a way of separating himself from the reality of the compromises to his artistic vision he has made for survival. Each encounter feeds his artistic need but exacts a payment from his creative soul.
There is a parallel story to the one being told openly by Nikolai. It is the one of his brother Sergei’s journeys in the art world. Where Nikolai is searching for total social freedom that will allow him to create art in the wild exploratory way of the Soviet dissident art movement, his brother is building his art career within the rigid constraints of formulaic socialist realism.
We see this idea presented at four points within the play, with three of those moments showing the compromises Sergei made to achieve the recognition he craved for his style of art. And in the fourth moment, a demonstration of how each system has led to compromises that betrayed the artistic impulses that each brother started with as a young man.
In contrast with Nikolai, Sergei’s story carries a strong dramatic thread that is not clearly developed in the show. The orchestrated sexual encounters are more of a distraction from the central idea of losing ones’ artistic vision to the imperative of survival. Both brothers succeed within their respective systems, and both ultimately lose their artistic souls in exchange for that success; Sergei with the collapse of the ossified Soviet system of artistic expression, and Nikolai with the artistic compromises necessary for success within an apparently more open system.
Jonathan Glass gives a solid performance as Nikolai, although there needs to be more contrast in his makeup and costume to show the passage of time. Alex Yuille has the difficult task of playing four different characters, each with a different accent. He is mostly successful with the accents, although sometimes the accents get in the way of textual clarity. Alice Johnson’s characterization of Patricia Gordon, one of the two characters she plays, is a solid piece of acting. Audrey Wilson as Monique beautifully inhabits a complicated character adding unexpected dimensions to Nikolai’s travels.
The cast and crew wear multiple hats in the presentation of this show. Katelyn Leveille, Christopher Pasi, Inga Khurieva, Rachel Pacelli, and Sarah Debaets successfully embody multiple characters in Nikolai’s journey. In some scenes, they play scene-specific characters and as ancillary supporting characters in other scenes. The set design by T.J. Jacobs is limited because of the stage size but is effective with the help of screen projections upstage designed by Anneke J. Thompson and Alexis Kitchmire. Zoltan Gergely designed a special easel that plays prominently in some scenes. The lighting by Alexis Qualls is well orchestrated to the changing moods and tempos of the action. And finally, the music is by Alexander Kaletski and Steven Katz.
Darkness of Light: Confessions of a Russian Traveler (through April 16, 2023)
The 36th Street Theatre, 312 W. 36th St. 4th floor, in Manhattan
Running time: 105 minutes including one intermission