Saturday, December 05, 2009

On-Stage: Light in the Dark

Love is fleeting and death awaits us all. Welcome to Russian drama, performed in this case as part of a cross-cultural meditation on the intimate connection between love and inevitable loss. Consisting of two Anton Chekhov one acts, Swan Song and The Bear, each proceeded by a musical interludes, Theatre Han’s thoughtful inter-disciplinary production of Light in the Dark opened last night at Theatre 54.

The Korean word “Han” translates variously as “one,” “wide” or “all-encompassing,” and also “sorrow,” all of which are quite fitting descriptions of Theatre Han’s approach to Chekhov. Light begins with “Salpuri-chum,” a traditional Korean mourning dance incorporating a flowing white scarf. Performed by Master Sue-Yeon Park with stately elegance and masterful precision, it is an intriguing introduction to the program and an effective prologue for Swan Song, which features a protagonist of advancing years wrestling with his mortality and failures.

Vasily Vasilich Svetlovidov was once a dashing young actor with tremendous promise. Now he is a drunken shell, stumbling through parts that were once beneath him. Having passed out after a cast party, Svetlovidov awakens later that night in the darkened theater. Assuming the building is deserted, he is forced to confront his loneliness and regrets, until the homeless prompter Nikita Ivanich appears, attempting console the wretched veteran thespian.

A one-act that might be familiar to some from Kenneth Branagh’s short film adaptation, Swan has a profound sadness that is universal yet distinctly Russian at the same time. Director Frederick Waggoner stages the two-hander with judicious economy appropriate to the stark nature of the play. L.B. Williams is quite impressive as Svetlovidov, conveying the mounting anxieties and innate theatricality of the aging actor. He is nicely complimented by the more restrained Ivan De Leon, as the shy but equally insecure Ivanich.

The second entr’acte features soprano Seung Hee Lee alternating with Insuk Kim, performing “Pamina’s Aria” from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, with Moon Young Yang’s sensitive piano accompaniment. It is a beautiful rendition of a dramatic lover’s lament from a relatively light-hearted opera. As such, it serves as a nice transition to Chekhov’s more comedic The Bear.

Yelena Ivanovna Popova’s husband has been dead seven months, but she persists in mourning him. It is not as though Popov deserved it though. He was unfaithful and cruel, yet she clings to her grief in an act of almost existential spite. However, when the brash Grigory Stepanovich Smirrnoff comes to collect a debt supposedly owed by her late husband, he immediately rubs her the wrong way in a Tracey-Hepburn sort of way. Suddenly, all bets are off.

Han artistic director Alice Oh is just fantastic as Popova, displaying nice comedic timing while maintaining complete credibility as the angst-ridden widow. Federico Trigo also shows a good flair for comedy as Popova’s loyal servant Luka. Together they keep The Bear brisk and breezy in an effective contrast to the considerably darker Swan.

Light is a well conceived blend of Slavic, Asian, and European cultural elements. Though the interludes might sound like unrelated non-sequiturs, they actually provide a fresh framework to present Chekhov’s well-known one acts. A rewarding night of theater, music, and dance, Light runs through December 20th at Theatre 54.

(Photo credit: Ho Chang)