Mr. Leaf’s plot centers on the complex relationship between Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) and Tsar Nicholas I who was his affectionate patron and their conflict over giving freedom to the serfs that was advocated by Pushkin. His strained marriage is depicted as are his friendships. Major works that he wrote such as Eugene Onegin, and Boris Godunov are cited. Having a great-grandfather who was an African page and the societal ramifications of this ancestry are described as this clashed with his otherwise noble background.
The dialogue contains original verse in the manner of Pushkin and formal speech that enables Leaf to perfectly realize the sense of the time period and the imperial milieu. His obvious prodigious research presents key events and imparts biographical details to pointed effect. As in many of the most accomplished works in this genre there is an arguably unavoidable stiff tone at times in the exposition laden 70-minute first act. The 35-minute second act races by to its tragic, moving and rewarding conclusion.
On the floor of the two-sided large square playing area is a red carpet on which scenic designer Troy Hourie places minimal vintage furnishings. Stage crew members dressed as peasants periodically rearrange furniture and bring out new objects and take them away as needed. Mr. Hourie’s stark yet lush setting swiftly serves as various Russian locales including a snowy field when a large white sheet is placed over the red carpet. Crew members pulling weathered ropes raise a white flat from the floor that becomes a ceiling and later lower it as its empty center panel symbolically frames Pushkin.
The cast of 11 is superbly decked out in costumes designer Elivia Bovenzi’s awesome early 19th century period creations. Frock coats, elaborate military uniforms dotted with regalia, voluminous topcoats, fur accessories, capes, gorgeous gowns and rustic garments for the servants are all on dazzling display. Tommy Kurzman’s beautiful wig and hair design adds further richness to the look of company.
From the stately introductory image of the entire cast assembling onstage at the beginning to the final haunting duel in the snow, director Christopher McElroen’s exquisite staging is a glorious series of tableaus, stage pictures and often searing confrontations with dashes of humor. Choreographer Bruce Heath’s palace ballroom dance numbers are delightful.
The brooding, fiery and handsome Ian Lassiter’s tempestuous and charismatic portrayal of Pushkin is informed by his resemblance to him. With his clipped vocal delivery, bonhomie and icy grandeur, Gene Gillette is commanding as the Tsar. Lou Liberatore is wickedly conniving as Count Benkendorf, the head of the secret police who keeps tabs on Pushkin.
Jenny Leona as Pushkin’s wife Natalya offers a wistful portrait of regret and resilience. Playing Pushkin’s troublesome mother-in-law and a spying maid is Tracy Sallows who creates two striking characterizations that veer from amusing to poignant. The captivating Lexi Lapp is heartbreaking as Natalya’s younger sister Alexandra who grows too close to Pushkin. Olivia Gilliatt has marvelous moments as the husband-hunting other sister Katarina. Her quarry is the proper Count D’Anthes played by the intense Christopher Kelly with quiet charm.
The ensemble also has Michael Earle Fajardo, Daniel Petzold and Kyle Cameron exhibiting style and talent as they make an impact in other integral roles.
Lighting designer Zack Weeks is in welcome overdrive with a multitude of crisp fluctuations that complement the many scenes and moods. Andy Evan Cohen’s sound design gives ravishing treatments of the many musical selections from the era that are heard throughout.
With its fine writing and impeccable presentation, Pushkin is a compelling theatrical exploration of a fascinating literary figure.
Pushkin (through August 25th, 2018)
the american vicarious
The Sheen Center for Thought & Culture
Black Box Theatre, 18 Bleecker Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-925-2812 or visit http://www.sheencenter.org
Running time: two hours including one intermission