Nagle Jackson’s bright comedy, seen in its world premiere, is subtitled “Scenes From a Revolution.” It is set at the Kuzlov Theater in St. Petersburg in 1991-92, the times of perestroika and glasnost. Dramatically focused, “The Quick-Change Room” resonates with concern for moral standards in a free society.
The title refers to that small costume room where actors make frantic between-scenes costume changes. As Communist controls fade and established authorities are disestablished, mere procurers like box office manager Boris insinuate their way to thrones of power.
Jackson’s commendable take on this transition of power skillfully blends farce with a sympathetic regard for the faithful who have lived for art and find themselves adrift in a dangerously material world. His humor sometimes carries the whiff of ’40s comedies, which underscores the nostalgia for grand theater that brims over in his writing.
With many characters, the sense of being backstage is pervasive. People rush about, have professional jealousies and ambitions, and carry on their private lives as well. Many problems challenge the theater. For one, there’s no soap. Antiquated lighting fixtures are close to being lethal. And the senior actress knows her days of playing elderly maidservants are drawing near.
But that’s not all. Chekhov’s “The Three Sisters” is about to become “O, My Sister,” a musical about two sisters who go to Moscow. This is to compete with “Lolita” playing down the street.
The lighthearted farce only suggests the incredible change in the lives of the Russian people, its central metaphor a brilliant way of doing so. Jackson embeds in the play, and chiefly in the role of the venerable director, Sergey (Tony Church), a powerful regard for the glories of Russian theater’s great tradition and the vulgarization of theater as it seeks to “face reality.”
Sergey is the true conservative who works to get actors doing Chekhov in such a way that their words “come from the bone.” He would hold to established artistic standards without pandering to an impatient public.
Young Nina (Erin J. O’Brien) is the one who drives for change in partnership with Boris (Alex Wipf), the onetime producer who’s now a director and all-around hustler. Nina begins the play as an innocent. By the end, she is manipulating Boris and the theater into both artistic disaster and popular triumph.
Nina is the daughter of Marya (Peggy Pope), who commands the quick-change room. To save money, her aide, Lena (Alice White), is let go. No longer is the quick-change room dependable. The leading man rushes in and leaves with a woman’s cap on his head.
Church brings a figure of idealism and affability to the stage with his splendid Sergey. He is simply marvelous in speech and in subtle, generous playing. The talented young O’Brien is a tiny beauty whose Nina becomes a frightening victim of rampant Russian materialism. Jacqueline Antaramian shines as the older but wiser Anna, Sergey’s former mistress.
Annie Murray is the much older and unpopular actress who finds her humanity as she loses her authority as the Senior Leading Woman, who ends up where she never believed she could, in the quick-change room. John Hutton is seen mostly in hilarious running gags as he desperately tries to make his costume changes in time to get back onstage. As Boris, who ultimately procures the theater management for himself, Wipf expresses the smugness of advanced corruption. His disdain for theater is matched by his contempt for actors.
Paul Weidner’s direction succeeds in unifying a multicharacter play into hard-hitting satire. Michael Ganio’s evocative setting establishes a faded elegance.
Special praise should go to David Kay Mickelsen for the brilliance of his costuming, garments that are seen only for a moment in this striking backstage commentary on the work out in front.