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Glenda Frank


THE STORM -- (l to r): Giorgio Pinetta, Darrell Stokes, Terria Joseph, Dave Edson, Andrew Dahl, Sora Baek and Zenzelé Cooper. Photo by Alan Edwards.

THE STORM by Aleksandr Ostrovski.
Translated and adapted by Laura Wickens.
Directed by Jessica Burr ant Blessed Unrest. Interart Theate, 500 W. 52 St., NYC.
April 13 -- May 7, 2012.
Fri. and Sat. at 8 PM. Sun. and Mon. at 7 PM.
Tickets $18. 646-238-0829 or www.blessedunrest. org.

Ostrovsky might not recognize himself in the mirror director Jessica Burr has held up to his 1859 Russian masterpiece "The Storm." There is high art in the staging, art that leaps the fourth wall. Choral movement frequently replaces dialogue in a style that is a cross between dance narrative and Brechtian story telling. Although it remains true to the heart of the drama, this is not social realism but experimental theatre at its best.
Aleksandr Ostrovsky’s work, although rarely staged and barely known outside of graduate school seminars, was immediately popular in his life time. "The Storm" among other plays was turned into the successful opera, "Katya Kabanova" by Leo Janacek, the Czech composer. As performed by Blessed Unrest in a new translation and adaptation by Laura Wickens, Katrina and Boris find themselves in a highly sexualized world of not-so-secret longings -- and trysts in the midnight garden. Katrina (Zenzelé Cooper) is a pious young wife. She and her handsome, alcoholic husband (Darrell Stokes) live under the thumb of Marfa (Terria Joseph), his hypocritical mother, who does not hide her amatory interest in Dikoy (Andrew Dahl), a pillar of the community. Varvara (Laura Wickens), Marfa’s unmarried daughter and Katrina’s confidant, is very pregnant. The widow Feklusha wags her finger at pretty young women and warns them of danger although she lives with her two lovers, Dave Edson and Marco De Ornella.

Even in this environment, Katrina remains innocent. We meet her holding a bible. She barely realizes she has inspired an obsessive passion in Boris (Tim Eliot), a bland young man who is controlled by his uncle Dikoy. We enter this world as Boris is gathering his courage to speak to her.
Evocation and transformation are the hallmarks of the production. Blessed Unrest nodded creatively to Ostrovsky’s social satire but kept its focus on Katrina’s sexual coming of age. In several inspired repeating numbers, we learn about the provincial town’s mandate to conform. Catty corner to each other, lines of male and female actors dance in a stylized pantomime that suggests Brecht more than Martha Graham. Jason Griffin who cross dresses as Feklusha seems to suggest forbidden desire. Griffin’s impossibly long limbs -- like an El Greco figure -- bend and unfold like beats. Feklusha’s movements with her buff bare-chested lovers are like balletic interludes. Actors change costumes and characters in full view. Dave Edson, who has some wonderful comic turns as Galoshes, Marfa’s maid, removes his kerchief and dress to play one of Feklusha’s grooms. Marco De Ornella, another groom, exhibits bits of male prowess when he courts Varvara. Different angles of the stage bring us delightful little moments that are then swept into the flow of Katrina’s narrative.

The metatheatrics are deliberately jarring to keep us engaged while the play quietly roils to a full assault on our emotions/hearts. There is dissonance -- for example, between the quasi-period costumes mostly in burgundy, black and white by Summer Lee Jack and a modern, masculine hair cut for Katrina’s mother-in-law. A river runs through the set (by Benjamin C. Gevelow) -- the Volga River that defines this provincial town and eventually is the site of Katrina’s tragedy. The river is also theatricalized. In inclement weather, cans with holes are pulled from the water by wires -- and the rain comes down. Thunder is sounded by rattling a visible metal sheet. The disadvantage of "poor theatre" becomes a small drama in itself, pulling us deeper into the story for having diverted our attention.

The plot speeds up when Katrina is persuaded by her sister-in-law to meet Boris at night. The lovers are shy and delicate. They meet again. And again. And each time they unbutton each other’s clothing a bit more. It is both innocent and erotic. Katrina’s metamorphosis is transfixing. Freed from her dress (in a slip) and headband -- the meek girl emerges as a vivacious woman. She is incandescent. The couple’s stylized love making itself is a dance, unlike the other couplings that are simply retreat to dark corners.

Ironically Katrina’s self-discovery becomes her isolation. She no longer blends in, and when Boris tells her his uncle has sent him away to the army, her dismay becomes panic. She confesses all to her husband -- who forgives her. But she cannot forgive herself.
Theatre of this quality and imagination is rare. The Interart Theatre has bought new, more comfortable seats but the ambiance remains welcoming and funky, which is the essence of good off off-Broadway.

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