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Back in the USSR

Fells Point Corner Theatre Gives New Life to a Soviet-Era Throwback With Black Snow

Upstaged: Beleaguered playwright Mark Poremba (right) gets a tip from Anne O'Reilly in Black Snow.

By John Barry | Posted 1/21/2004

Black Snow

Mikhail Bulgakov, adapted by Keith Reddin

Mikhail Bulgakov wrote Black Snow in Soviet Russia in the 1930s, when he was at the end of his rope artistically. He wasn't getting published, he wasn't getting paid, and his work had been banned from the theater. Through one of Stalin's quirky intercessions, Bulgakov was lucky enough to have a day job at the Moscow Art Theatre, but the fact that he was being sponsored by the very authorities who were preventing him from being published left him even more uncomfortable. That may be why Bulgakov's alter ego in Black Snow, Sergei Leontivich Maxudov (played by Mark Poremba), starts out with a noose around his neck.

In his incomplete novel Black Snow, Bulgakov used his trademark satire to lash out at his tormentors, and at himself for compromising with them. As a novel (originally titled A Theatrical Novel), it didn't stand a chance of being published in Soviet Russia. So 60 years later, Keith Reddin's script is an Americanized adaptation of an unfinished Russian novel about a staged Soviet adaptation of a novel that has the same title as the play.

Understandably, there are a few degrees of separation here, but the Fells Point Corner Theatre players manage to sail through them in a smooth production that understates the themes that are more Soviet-specific and focuses on some of the problems endemic to theater itself, whether in the early USSR or the Actors Studio.

The story line is pretty simple, and proceeds along a downward slope. The novel by writer Maxudov finally catches the attention of the literary powers-that-be. They start out suggesting minor adjustments; the writer compromises. Soon he finds himself sliding both politically and artistically into oblivion.

The people he meets on that path to disaster are a fairly predictable bunch of literary functionaries, sympathetic friends, vituperative critics (who pan the show on the basis of the poster alone), and political cronies. But this production really hits its stride--and Bulgakov's satire grows sharper and more subtle--in the second act, when Maxudov watches helplessly as his play falls into the hands of Ivan Vasilievich (J.R. Lyston). That's where Black Snow takes on one of the theater's sacred cows: Konstantin Stanislavsky.

Vasilievich is a thinly disguised stand-in for Stanislavsky, the theatrical auteur whose iron fist ruled over the Moscow Arts Theatre of Bulgakov's day. His influence, of course, extends far beyond that era. Lyston's Vasilievich is the evening's strong point: He plays a theatrical icon entirely oblivious of the world spinning around him. He gets rolled around by subordinates, dispenses pearls of wisdom to his peanut gallery, and directs plays without reading the scripts.

We're left watching helplessly as Maxudov's play disintegrates in front of his eyes during rehearsals presided over by Vasilievich. The cast members try to plumb their inner beings using theatrical exercises--actors wind up giving one another imaginary bouquets of flowers, riding bicycles, and finding other ways to strip down to the genuine emotional core. Of course, this has nothing to do with Maxudov's play at all.

Black Snow moves along at a nice clip, thanks to Poremba's capable, low-key narration of his character's own predicament. As the central character, Poremba is given the difficult job of shifting from monologues to ensemble scenes, and for the most part it works, although at points Maxudov seems to be left drifting in an ensemble of nutty, somewhat shallow characters. His supporting cast has some real gems, but one wishes that Reddin had pared things down a bit in his adaptation: The 15 actors in this production wind up juggling up to five roles apiece, and that's enough to confuse even a Russian Lit major. Standouts include Dorothy Spenser as the impervious, straight-backed Irina and Bryon Predika as the wheezing, bug-eyed Bondarevsky. One wishes they'd had a little more time in the spotlights.

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