When a Washington-area playwright completes a work which is intellectually provocative, artistically satisfying, and powerfully authentic, it is a cause for celebration for those who love local theater. We have moved one step further in developing our own theatrical voice – mature, subtle, complex, full of moral conflict and, above all, fully conscious of the real-world considerations which weigh upon our desire to do good.
Brothers and sisters, break out the champagne. We have a winner.
Allison Currin’s Hercules in Russia takes the life of one of history’s cameo players – Jim Hercules, (Ricardo Frederick Evans), a member of the Tsar’s retinue (and, in this telling, personal security to Grand Duchess Tatiana) at the time of the Russian revolution. The historical Hercules appears to have been the son of slaves, born in the American south around 1867. After having been a boxer in New York City for a spell, he shipped off overseas and had adventures in Arabia and Africa. Eventually he joined the Romanov staff as part of the household guard. He stayed until the 1917 revolution overthrew the Tsar and sent him and his family on a path which eventually ended in their murder. The historical record on Jim Hercules stops there.
Currin skillfully spins out the rest. Hercules gives his backstory in compact tales he tells to the Grand Duchess (Sarah Ulstrup): how, as a child, his mother, penniless and in despair, brought the family back to the home she lived in as a slave; how she lives now, in a tiny cabin with a dirt yard, how the local drunk prophesied that he would meet a violent end. Currin spaces these expositional moments out carefully and precisely, so that they seem less like information dumps than adventures an older man might tell to a young girl. Think Othello and Desdemona, without the romantic subtext.
The Romanovs live in a dream of safety, but Jim has a chance to slip out into the streets and find out how things really are. He drinks with Jonah (DeJeanette Horne), an African-American from Kentucky who, like Jim, has gone to Russia to escape American racism and who now runs a bar. He listens to Lev (Andrew Ferlo), a Bolshevik agitator whose bitterness is grounded in personal misery. Both Jonah and Lev, in their own ways, acquaint him with the misery widespread in his adopted country. And when he comes back to the Palace, Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaevich (Gordon Adams), the Tsar’s profane, honest cousin, lets him know how the war with Germany is really going. And as Jim begins to grapple with the moral dimensions of a family which has presided over the starvation of a nation, the ghost of Sunday (Jasmin Danielle Johnson), a woman he once loved, reminds him of another time when he had an opportunity to stand against oppression, but chose comfort instead.
It is a combustible mixture, and when it blows up, it does so satisfyingly. I give nothing away when I say that the Tsar is overthrown, but I will leave you to discover how Jim resolves – or fails to resolve – the conflict between moral necessity and his personal connections.
I wish I could say that the Doorway Arts production rose to the level of the script. It is workmanlike and serviceable; Evans is entirely convincing as Hercules, and Ferlo and Adams both give first-rate performances. I also thought Johnson and Horne, who appears to be making his professional debut after a distinguished career in community theater, acquitted themselves well. Director Jessica Lefkow staged the play crisply; and she and Currin merged scenes seamlessly into each other, in the style of Robert O’Hara’s Antebellum, a happy experience at Woolly a couple of years back.
My principal problem with this production is Ms. Ulstrup as the Grand Duchess. I don’t want to make more of this than what it is; Ms. Ulstrup is a high school student, and – June Schreiner notwithstanding – it is very difficult for high school students to act at a professional level. Aside from working on her diction and projection, Ms. Ulstrup needs to find the center of her character, and be that person every moment that she is on stage. From the text, I get that the Grand Duchess is a child desperately wanting to become an adult, with an adult’s understanding; she is bright enough to know that something dangerous is going on out there, and she yearns to know what it is. I did not get any of this from Ms. Ulstrup’s performance; her peak emotional moments – tears, for example – seemed to come out of the blue, and so seemed whiny and manipulative, rather than powerfully authentic.
But, for all I know, some day Ms. Ulstrup might become a great actor, and her performance in this production unremembered. We must not forget the production itself, however, since it is another step forward for an increasingly distinguished contingent of Washington playwrights.
Hercules in Russia runs thru March 4, 2012 at the Cultural Arts Center, 7995 Georgia Avenue Silver Spring, MD.
Hercules in Russia
By Allison Currin
Directed by Jessica Lefkow
Produced by Doorway Arts Ensemble and Arts Alive Theatre
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Two hours, including one intermission