Sunday, July 28, 2013

MITF ’13: The Past is Still Ahead

It remains unclear whether the suicide of poet Marina Ivanovna Tsvetaeva was staged by the Soviet NKVD or merely the result of their constant threats and intimidation.  Frankly, it hardly matters—Stalin and his obedient secret police are morally culpable, either way.  Playwright Sophia Romma squarely faces the truths and tragedies of Tsvetaeva’s life with a new production of The Past is Still Ahead, mounted as part of the 2013 Midtown International Theatre Festival in New York.

As a small girl, Tsvetaeva met the Tsar at the opening of what would become the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, founded by her father.  Obviously, none of that would stand her in good stead with the Soviet regime.  Tsvetaeva married Sergey Yakovlevich Efron, who became a prominent White Russian Officer.  He was also half-Jewish.  Those were probably more than enough strikes against Tsvetaeva to brand her a class enemy, but her epic verse honoring the White resistance essentially closed the book on her.  Yet, at Efron’s insistence, Tsvetaeva returned to Russia, predictably enduring a dire existence of internal exile.

As the play opens, Tsvetaeva has little illusions regarding her limited future. Increasingly resigned to her fate, she is visited by visions from her past, including Efron, her domineering mother Maria Meryn, and her lovers, the guileless Osip Mandelstam and the scandalous lesbian poet Sophia Parnoc. Yet, it is the memory of Rainer Maria Rilke, the soul mate she only knew through their correspondence, that offers her the greatest comfort.

Although Past portrays Tsvetaeva’s life in impressionistic fragments, it incorporates decades of Soviet history, accurately reflecting the chaos and oppression of the era.  The unequivocal depiction of the Party’s anti-Semitism is particularly eye-opening.  Likewise, Tsvetaeva’s anguished memories of Moscow’s post-Revolutionary famine dramatically illustrate the human costs of ideology.

While little of Tsvetaeva’s actual verse is heard throughout Past, it nonetheless celebrates the power of language.  This is most certainly true of her scenes with Rilke, which tantalizingly imply how their shared literary sensibilities might have led to greater fulfillment.  However, given the relatively short running time, it seems like Past devotes more than enough time to Maria Meryn and her severe piano lessons.  In contrast, it seems strange her friend and champion Boris Pasternak never enters her reveries, especially given his continuing literary prominence.

Regardless, Alice Bahlke gives a remarkable performance as Tsvetaeva.  A smart, sophisticated portrayal that also conveys how brittle and profoundly damaged Tsvetaeva became, Bahlke makes it impossible to hang any pat label on Tsvetaeva, like “victim” or “counter-revolutionary,” which is clearly the whole point.  Tosh Marks is also quite engaging as Rilke, Mandelstam, and Efron, developing some real stage chemistry with Bahlke in each role.

Having debuted at Mayakovsky Academic Theater in Moscow with subsequent stagings produced in New York, Geneva, and Montreal, Past is now being presenting with its first all-American cast.  They do well by Tsvetaeva’s story.  An intelligent piece of theater, featuring stand-out work from Bahlke and Marks, The Past is Still Ahead concludes its MITF run tonight (7/28) at the Jewel Box Theatre.

(Photos: Jonathan Slaff)