In the cathartic upheaval of the venerable Kuzlov Theatre of St. Petersburg, Nagle Jackson has created a comically horrific microcosm of the post-Glasnost/Perestroika re-invention of Russia as an emerging capitalistic, free-enterprise state. It is an expertly crafted metaphor for the dissolution of a controlled way of life that offered guarantees but no freedom to a chaotic system of entrepreneurialism that promises free will but no guarantees. Though often clumsy in its staging, the production admirably conveys a balance of utter sadness and outright hilarity as the theater company is forced to realize the honored theatrical traditions of Stanislavsky can't compete with a naked bottom when it comes to selling tickets at the box office.
Director Orson Bean is blessed with an outstanding ensemble that is forced to work around Victoria Profitt’s inhibiting tri-level set. Many of the potentially hilarious, built-in farcical elements of the work do not reach their full potential as the ensemble gets bogged down by stage areas that are too small, crowded and badly spaced to make proper entrances and exits, let alone pace effective line deliveries. Under Bean’s guidance, however, the characterizations are dead on as the imperious artistic director Sergey (Gar Campbell) wages war with the opportunistic box office manager-turned-marketing impresario Boris (Seth Margolies) over the survival of the company.
Set in 1991/92 — just before and after the downfall of Gorbachev — Sergey is attempting to stage a classically correct production of Chekov’s “The Three Sisters,” in the midst of severe economic cutbacks, layoffs, inflation and dwindling theater attendance. Sergey and the aging grande dame, Ludmilla (Marilyn Fox), are unable to grasp, let alone evolve, with the changes happening around them. Inevitably, the emerging capitalist Boris takes over the production, which is turned into a musical with only two sisters (Ludmilla is too old and can’t sing), featuring a rousing finale wherein the ladies (Nell Buttolph and Lisa Barnes) board a train and actually do get to Moscow.
The stately Campbell and the portly Margolies are effective combatants, personifying the sentimental past and the callow future, respectively. Fox is every inch the grand actress who is reduced from towering, indignant rage to a whimpering shell of a being who only wants to keep working.
As Nina, the ingenue who is only too happy to bare her backside for the good of the company and turn Chekov’s Irina into a pelvis-grinding, song-and-dance girl, Buttolph exudes a bubbly, energetic sensuality that gives evidence she is ideally suited to the new order. Barnes’s not quite over-the-hill Anna is an effectively wry commentator to the parade of events that she is unwilling to let pass her by.
Also lending solid support are: Alley Mills’ indomitable Marya, who runs the costume quick-change room (of the play’s title); Frank Collison as Nikolai, the company’s monumentally egocentric leading actor; Susan Dexter as Lena, Marya’s pitiful co-worker who is completely victimized by the new system; and Greg Vignolle, the youthfully exuberant communist who segues quite easily into an embittered, gun-toting Russian Mafioso.