Dmitry Krimov’s Big Trip boasts two productions joined together. Combined, they are a poignant travelogue through cultures, languages, and traditions. While the other program examines works of American literary icons Ernest Hemingway and Eugene O’Neill, this one is a clever homage to Pushkin’s landmark novel in verse, Eugene Onegin. Here it is referred to as Pushkin “Eugene Onegin” In Our Own Words.”
Krymov is internationally admired for his visually arresting and richly layered reinventions of literary masterworks. Trained in stage design, he designed well over a hundred productions, working with some of the most respected directors and theater institutions. In 2002, Krymov began teaching stage design at the Russian Academy of Theater Arts. His forays into performance led to a new career as director, launching the Dmitry Krymov Laboratory in 2004. In 2016, Krymov was invited to teach a master class at the Yale School of Drama, where working with graduate students he created his first English-language production, The Square Root of Three Sisters.
In early 2022, Krymov traveled to Philadelphia to create a new production of The Cherry Orchard with the Wilma Theatre. When the Russian government invaded Ukraine, he publicly stated his opposition to the war knowing it meant exile. Taking up residence in New York, he launched his new company, Krymov Lab NYC, with an Emergency Residency at La Mama, resulting in workshops of the two productions now being presented in their debut public performances.
Once entering the Ellen Stewart Theatre, we are informed this is a children’s theater piece. If you don’t have a child with you, one will be provided for you. These are the brilliant “child” creations of puppet designers Leah Ogawa and Luna Gomberg, beautifully mismatched body parts and papier mâché heads, dressed in colorful mismatched fabrics, each with its own story that we can only imagine. When the play first appeared in Moscow, it was a children’s play in which four non-Russians explain their love of Pushkin to a room full of children. Now, here in New York, we have four immigrant Russians desperately trying to explain the value of an untranslatable Russian classic to a New York audience in a current “cancel culture” of suspect and utter disdain for all Russian literature and art…and artists. How else do we explain an institution as storied as the Metropolitan Opera invalidating its years of current and future contracted seasons with the world’s reigning soprano of choice, Anna Netrebko?
In the great tradition of a Russian repertory company, we meet the four main players carrying loads of prop-filled Ikea bags as they are led into the playing space by a theater assistant. Though they are a bedraggled itinerant foursome, they question the absence of a real stage, a proscenium, an apron, wings, a trap room, and the flies. Resigned to the fact this is an experimental theater space, rather than a thousand-seat theater they are used to, they proceed to give the audience a lesson in theater production and how a theater works. They set up their own small audience, four of the child puppets, in chairs directly in front of the first row.
Just as Pyotr, the leader of the group, begins his “essay” on Pushkin, he is interrupted by a “protestor” in the audience, “What are you people doing here? Russian theater? And you brought children? Do you know who isn’t enjoying theater now? Children in Ukraine. You should be ashamed of yourselves. You can’t hide behind your beautiful Russian “culture” anymore. Your culture means destruction, and death, and all your Pushkins, your Dostoevskies and Chekhovs cannot save you.” Pyotr is then pelted with rotten tomatoes. His fellow actors are stunned and horrified, but Pyotr cleans himself up and turns to face the audience sporting a bright red clown nose. In support of their fellow actor, the other three craft their own clown noses out of red tape that would have been used to mark blocking on the stage floor. It is one of the more haunting moments in this production.
Though very much an ensemble, star performances shine in this production. Jeremy Radin as Pyotr Naomovich is a true find. If he can sing, there will be monumental Tevyes in his future. He narrates this “Onegin” taking us from lessons in theater to vibrant character studies. He triumphs as Tatyana’s nanny, at one point crawling under a large table so as to lift it and bring it to Tatyana, rather than drag it. When one considers this Nanny is meant to be in her twilight years, the visual is hilarious. His characterization of Pushkin at the end of the play is also quite brilliant, with the scene of his death being as chilling as the earlier pelting of tomatoes.
Elizabeth Stahlmann appears throughout as the actress Alla Borisovna, but stuns as Tatyana. The young Tatyana is impetuous and believably changes mood on a dime. When encountering Onegin at her birthday party, after sending her heartfelt letter to him, she runs the course of the entire theater, including two staircases, barefoot, and at a feverish clip, ideally away from him only to end up in his arms. It would be an exhausting feat at the top of the show, so happening as late in the show as it does is a testament to her endurance. She then has a gripping “why do you pursue me now?” monologue as she ages into the mature woman that must deny Onegin his romantic advances. It is no less emotionally exhausting than the aria that ends the Tchaikovsky opera.
Jackson Scott as Oleg Lvovich plays Onegin’s dead uncle (requiring more physical awareness and deftness than one would think), a handsome Lensky, and what Pyotr refers to as the Meryl Streep of Goose when Oleg dons red goose feet to slip on ice repeatedly. In addition to his being a rather striking actor, he is very much a consummate physical comedian in the vein of a young Bill Irwin.
Anya Zicer as Inna Natanovna has probably one of the most natural moments reciting Pushkin’s Winter poetry in its original Russian. She also has one of the funnier moments of the play in her transformation from the rotund Inna into the incredibly alluring Olga, sister to Tatyana…mimicking the transformation of Alla into Tatyana, complete with the amplified dropping of hairpins.
Natalie Battistone is utterly convincing as the theater assistant who is entrusted with ushering the emigree actors into the theater space. Her list of dos and don’ts is predictably daunting. It is only when she later reappears as a ballerina on Pyotr’s shoulders do we realize she wasn’t a member of the La Mama staff. Likewise, Kwesiu Jones is shocking and persuasive as the audience member-turned protester as the actors begin their presentation.
Krymov’s world is one of haunting imagery. Early on, the four actors take turns telling fast bits and pieces of theater practice, theater history, and audience behavior – one actor comes forward while the other three blow air under a feather to keep it aloft. As each actor comes forward, the one who just spoke joins the other two in the taming of the feather, until finally they finish speaking and the feather falls to the floor. They stare at the feather as if this is not how the rehearsal went, until a child cries out to its mother that it wants to go home.
The feather imagery returns during Tatyana’s birthday party scene. They all keep the feather afloat until Onegin accepts Lensky’s challenge to a duel. Seconds later, the audience member acting as Onegin opens a birthday box revealing the gun that shoots Lensky dead. Another important piece of Krymov’s imagery is created by conveyor mechanisms – one representing the seasons and their predictability, the other the aging of a human from childhood to adulthood. Situated side by side they make the case for how one should always look forward to what they do not know, as opposed to looking back to a situation they are no longer able to change. A doll abandoned by the Museum of Morbid Anatomy representing Tatyana and a Kermit the Frog representing Onegin meet on the conveyor belt…here their stories are reversed. Tatyana has matured and married well, and she spurns the advances of Onegin now, just as he had dismissed her affections when she was younger. The conveyors provide an evocative interpretation for one of the most haunting denouements in world literature.
Krista Smith’s lighting design supports the different moods from lessons taught to lives lived with a dominant brightness. Luna Gomberg’s costumes are in keeping with the whimsy of the child dolls – all suggestive of an anxious meeting of thrift stores and a box of Crayolas.
Krymov’s production is a rapturous love letter to the making of theater. He unearths how we really tell our stories by our emotions, what we hide, as much as what we reveal. He uses his stagecraft to develop new work from what has existed for decades but now through what must be the most meticulous, yet fresh, improvisatory stage vocabulary. His new company’s forthcoming seasons will be must-see events of the highest order.
Big Trip 1: Pushkin “Eugene Onegin” In Our Own Words (Performed in repertory with Three Love Stories Near the Railroad through October 11, 2023)
Krymov Lab NYC
Ellen Stewart Theatre at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, 66 East 4th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.lamama.org/shows/big-trip-2023
Running time: 100 minutes without an intermission