Dianne Wiest and John Douglas Thompson in a scene from The Forest
(Photo credit: Joan Marcus)
What do you get when you cross Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night Dream with Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard? Alexander Ostrovsky’s The Forest! The Classic Stage Company is following its recent annual excursions into Russian drama with the often revived The Seagull and Uncle Vanya with this rarely seen comic masterpiece by the founder of Russian national drama. Ostrovsky did for Russian theater what Hendrik Ibsen did in Europe by putting recognizable middle-class people on stage. Two-time Academy Award winner Dianne Wiest returns to CSC for the first time since her 2008 appearance in The Seagull and is joined by John Douglas Thompson, who made a great stir in his portrayal of The Emperor Jones earlier this season.
It is surprising that Ostrovsky isn’t better know in the United States as he was the most prolific of the 19th century Russian playwrights with between 50 to 80 plays to his credit, depending on the source. His best-known play, The Storm, is more usually seen here in its operatic version by Janacek, retitled Katya Kabanova, which is in the repertory of the Metropolitan Opera. Other plays were also turned into operas by Tschaikovsky and Rimsky Korsakov. His great theme, the conflict between the pure in heart and the false values imposed by society, is to be found in The Forest.
The title The Forest is both symbolic and literal: wealthy, middle-aged widow Raisa Gurmyzhskaya (played by Wiest) owns an estate surrounded by a forest. Unlike Madame Arkadina in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard she is not averse to selling off pieces of it to Vosmibratov, a vulgar local timber merchant, in order to conduct her love affairs. Hypocritically cultivating a reputation as a generous philanthropist, she has taken in her distant relative Aksyusha, a poor girl of twenty, and Raisa pretends that she is attempting to raise a dowry for her.
The real reason is that she is using Aksyusha in order to attract Bulanov, a young man who has failed to pass his school examinations, for whom Raisa has developed a passion. In the meantime, Aksyusha has fallen in love with Vosmibratov’s son, Pyotr, but cannot marry him without the dowry of 3,000 rubles the greedy father requires. Raisa lives in fear that her nephew Gennady to whom she has owed money for 15 years will make a visit and demand his rights. Wanting to manipulate those around her, Raisa has set her haughty and pretentious housekeeper Ulita to spying on the young people.
To this topsy-turvy forest estate comes her nephew Gennady (Thompson) who is actually the tragedian Neschastlivtsev, whose stage name translates as “Unhappiness” or “Luckless.” Traveling with him is Arkady, a comedian whose stage name translates to “Happiness” or “Lucky.” Gennady has not visited his aunt all these years knowing she would be ashamed of his profession and his poverty. In order to bring the equally penniless Arkady into his aunt’s house, he passes him off as his servant and himself as a retired military officer, as that is the only costume he has with him.
He immediately perceives the lay of the land and gains Raisa’s confidence when he saves her from being cheated in her sale of two parcels of the forest to Vosmibratov. During an enchanted evening, all of the pairs of unhappy lovers meet in the forest, with Gennady taking advantage of the situation, and keeping them from throwing themselves in the lake. Eventually, he tricks Raisa into a happy ending for all concerned, and goes on his merry way.
The play is populated with impetuous young lovers, self-deluded noblewomen, crass merchants, conniving servants, pompous gentry, and unsophisticated youth, familiar from the comedies of both Moliere and Shakespeare. However, all of this is handled in the Russian manner: declarations of boredom or melancholy, calls for change and helping the poor. Kathleen Tolan’s admirable new adaptation is conversational, lucid and easy to follow.
Although Brian Kulick’s production is always engrossing and entertaining, this is not a definitive staging. Not all of the humor works, and the actors often seem to be posturing rather than living out their foibles. Wiest is much more in tune with Raisa than she had been with Chekhov’s Arkadina, but there is little variety to her performance. However, she is a commanding presence as the self-assured, high-born lady of the house.
Thompson who proved himself a major actor in his recent performances in the title roles of both Othello and The Emperor Jones seems miscast as the scheming actor. As Gennady is a tragedian, one would think that Thompson who specializes in such roles would be perfect casting. However, Gennady is a con-artist and probably a second rate actor, given his poverty. Thompson seems both too strong and too confident to be either.
Among the supporting roles, John Christopher Jones is very amusing as the stolid butler with the pessimistic view of life, and Lizbeth MacKay has great fun as Raisa’s housekeeper with delusions of her own. As the young lovers, Lisa Joyce and Quincy Dunn-Baker capture the passion of youth but seem one dimensional. Sam Tsoutsouvas’ conniving merchant isn’t as devious or wily as his role implies. Tony Torn is a little too obvious with his intentions as Arkady, the other intruder in Raisa’s house. Although Adam Driver is competent at the gaucheness of young Bulanov, he neither makes him as dim as a man who has failed his examinations or as funny as he ought to be.
The ever present forest has been subtly created by Santo Loquasto who has designed an all-wood setting with interwoven boards that form a canopy over the stage. A movable staircase cleverly divides the playing area into various locations in and around Raisa’s estate. Keeping with earth-tones, Marco Piemontese has designed costumes in browns, beiges, oranges and rust, emphasizing the characters as denizens of the forest.
Anyone interested in world drama and particularly classic European plays will want to take advantage of this rare opportunity to see Ostrovsky’s The Forest. Many of the elements that are now considered typically Chekhovian have their beginning here. While Chekhov’s plays turn up as regularly as clockwork, here is a chance to see a major and unfamiliar work from one of his teachers and predecessors.
The Forest (through May 30)
Classic Stage Company, 136 E. 13th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-352-3101 or http://www.classicstage.org