Director Dmitry Krymov had nine different shows playing in theaters in Moscow the day after Putin invaded Ukraine. The popularity of his brand of theater more than rivals how New Yorkers once kept five Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals running concurrently on Broadway. But his co-signing a letter protesting the invasion meant seven of those shows were closed the next day, his name was stricken from the other two, and he and his wife became exiles.
Three Love Stories Near a Railroad came out of an “emergency residency” offered to Krymov by La Mama Experimental Theatre Club last year. It has been presented with another play, Pushkin “Eugene Onegin” In Our Own Words, which has been playing in repertory with Three Love Stories Near a Railroad for this very impressive inaugural season of Krymov Lab NYC, Krymov’s American acting troupe.
To say that Krymov works like no other director is an understatement not to be taken lightly. He is known for his inventive Russian adaptations, but he has also been earning a reputation for tackling American literature with the same whimsical and sometimes fourth wall-smashing approach that emphasizes the pure act of theater making. It is at first quite disarming in its playfulness, yet never loses sight of sincere treatment of works of literature.
Here we find two Ernest Hemingway short stories, Hills Like White Elephants and A Canary for One, both written in the late 1920’s, matched with two scenes that serve as dense character portraits from Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms, circa 1924. They are not your normal fare when you consider the expectations of the term “love story.”
Hills Like White Elephants examines the relationship of a man and woman as they wait at an outdoor bar/café for the next train from Madrid to Barcelona. The reason for the trip? They are going to see a doctor that will abort the child the woman is now carrying. The word “abortion” is never spoken, but the implication is there. The man assures the woman, “I know lots of people who have done it and it’s really very simple.” The woman is not sure that will be the end to all their problems, “And things will be like they were, and you’ll love me again?”
A Canary for One finds another couple on a train bound for Paris. The reason for their trip? They are getting a divorce. Their distractions during this trip include a stage assistant unraveling a virtually endless muslin scroll of scenery and an older American woman traveling with a canary that is shedding its bright yellow feathers at a fierce pace. For the dance aficionados in the audience, this might offer a reminder of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo’s dancer Paul Ghiselin’s drag character, ballerina Ida Nevasayneva, as the hilarious molting Dying Swan.
The third pairing is Abby and her stepson Eben from Desire Under the Elms. She is married to Ephraim, Eben’s father, but feels nothing for him. She is a dutiful wife but endures physical and mental abuse at Ephraim’s hands. She is attracted to Eben, but his life revolved around his now deceased mother, and he is vehement in his hatred for Abby in that he sees her as trying to replace his missing parent. The scenes selected focus on the absolute absence of love in this trio.
Krymov does so much with very little. What appears to be a bare stage actually reveals a toy train on an elevated railway. For the most part, the train’s journey is hidden by tall upright discarded cardboard pieces. They may as well be the hills referred to in the title as after a loud reminder from the stage manager our host (and guitarist) Jackson Scott runs off to retrieve the bucket of white paint he throws onto the bare cardboard. From that same pile he pulls out the makings of a café table and two chairs. The tabletop is a cardboard disc that takes a few tries in becoming a weight-bearing table. And one of the chairs is not a chair – it is a beaten-up suitcase and a long piece of cardboard folded at the middle to impersonate the shape of a chair. Pretending doesn’t end with the furniture. The two beers are in cardboard coffee cups topped off by a hefty dollop of shaving cream. When the man and woman blow the beer’s “foam” off the top of the mug, the discarded shaving cream that lands on the floor gets recycled into the next drinks they order.
In the second scene, an interior of a train is created by a platform sitting on top of a “speed bump” that mimics the gentle seesaw of an old moving train. A stage assistant manages a huge scroll of muslin that steadily unfurls to reveal countryside and demarcations as if seen through the window of the train. At “night” it reveals stars in the sky. For Desire Under the Elms, that stage is replaced by two oversized high beds to represent the bedrooms of Ephraim and Eben. The height of the beds supports the fact that the two men appear in oversize suits that mask their appearing on stilts for the entire two scenes. That evidence is “given away” from the outset as we watch Abby helping Ephraim change from his sleepwear into a suit. The fact that the two men tower over Abby is not lost on the audience.
The acting in Krymov’s company defies superlatives. The three couples are all played by stunning Tim Eliot and Shelby Flannery. The silences of couples at sad crossroads in their relationships is deafening. As is typical for the period in which the pieces were written, the men always have the upper hand. The man in the first couple urges the woman on to the decision of aborting the child. Their continued relationship hangs in the balance of her adhering to his wishes. With the second couple, the dumbing down by the husband of the content of the conversation between the older woman and the couple is not only due to the sound of the train, but to the young wife’s preoccupation with what is about to be her future alone. In the last scene, Ephraim’s vicious handling of Abby is as painful to watch as any beatdown. Abby’s insisting on her love for Eben falls on deaf ears. The towering Eben landing atop Abby should indicate a coitus, but it is more like the meeting of fingernails on a chalkboard. Eliot and Flannery give us beautifully nuanced portrayals of couples that find themselves together for all the wrong reasons.
The rest of the cast finds subtleties in what is otherwise a palette of great broad strokes of pain. The graceful Kwesiu Jones dances the role of what is meant to be the woman’s unborn child in Hills Like White Elephants. He clutches to her legs when he isn’t commanding the entire space with his exquisite balletic line. The end of the dance finds him rocking back and forth facing upstage, clearly no longer part of her painful decision. Jones returns as the shockingly vile Ephraim who flies into a fit of consuming rage that renders him unable to speak. Jackson Scott is droll as the host of the first piece until his duties are usurped by the tenacious Jeremy Radin in drag as a Spanish barmaid who doesn’t know Spanish. Think Alistair Cooke moderating America replaced by a fast-talking Robin Williams as Mrs. Doubtfire.
Annie Hägg is touching as the older American woman transporting the shedding canary. She reveals a frailty and desperation beneath the constant sharing of the same uneventful stories for anyone who would listen. Later she is a vibrant Edith-Piafesque chanteuse seeking help from women seated in the front row as she appears to be popping out of her bodice. Anya Zicer is charming comic relief as Shlomo, the production assistant nephew of the impatient narrator played by Jeremy Radin. Radin is superb in his ongoing battle with sound levels and filling dead spots with patter until cues happen or lines are said. Natalie Battistone fools us as a techie delivering a gigantic artificial swordfish(?) to the neighboring New York Theater Workshop by traipsing through La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart stage and Erich Rausch is pokerfaced as the musician they can’t afford to pay.
Emona Stoykova’s minimal set gives the actors so much room to play with. The ideas for the miniature trains, the constant scenery change through the train window, as well as the “train” interior for A Canary for One are ingenious. Luna Gomberg’s costumes are spot on. The elaborate garishness of the older American woman’s outfit in A Canary for One and the linens for the Man and Woman in Hills Like White Elephants are sublime. Her use of stilts and what appear to be oversized zootsuits for the male characters in Desire Under the Elms is quite clever. Krista Smith’s lighting is sensitive to all manners of colors and shadows on the stage. Baye & Asa and Rachel McMullin’s choreography provides an exquisitely surreal touch to Kwesiu Jones’ dramatic solo.
Krymov has whet our appetites for more of his theatrical vision. We eagerly await next year’s La MaMa residency of Krymov Lab NYC.
Big Trip: Part 2 – Three Love Stories Near a Railroad (through October 15, 2023)
Krymov Lab NYC
Ellen Stewart Theater at The LaMaMa 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 intermission