Chekhov | Tolstoy Love  Stories: Show Review by Hannah Singer

I used to love reading the classics, which included classic Russian literature, when I still had time to leisurely read, you know, before motherhood!  So I jumped at the chance to see this show when I was offered tickets.  I thought, what a great opportunity to introduce my tween to the classics. I think of everything as a learning experience for my child. I want her to be well-cultured.

Two short plays are being shown for the first time together. Both stories were adapted by Miles Malleson (1888-1969). Miles was a talent in the British theatre who also adapted many works from all over the world. “The Artist” came from “An Artist’s Story” by Anton Chekhov, translated by Constance Garnett and directed by Jonathan Bank. The first production of “the Artist” was in 1919 with Malleson in the title role. “Michael” came from “What Men Live By” by Leo Tolstoy, translated by L. and A. Maude and directed by Jane Shaw (in her directorial debut).

Tolstoy (1828-1910) and Chekhov (1860-1904) are considered two of the world’s best writers, and they happened to be friends. They both cared about humanity and social issues, but they had vastly different writing styles.

Chekhov wrote in an impressionistic way with no clear ending, like life itself.  Tolstoy, on the other hand, thought that art should have the answers to bigger questions about life. Also religion and spirituality, was sprinkled into his work. Yet, they greatly admired one another.

These two works are great examples of their ideas.

The curtain opened to “The Artist” with simple stage decoration –  a painted tree, a table and a real Russian painter at his easel. The story is of a peasant artist painting on the land of an aristocratic family, two daughters and a mother. Of course we know there will be a love story, but between which characters? The artist paints and the young girl, intrigued by the artist, hangs around asking questions. He eventually offers her the art, and we know where this is headed. But we then meet the sister who is in charge and the mother who goes along with her. The other sister and the artist argue, they all leave, including a wealthy man who is also friends with the painter. Eventually the young girl comes back and in a lovely way, they profess their love for each other. They will meet in the morning they say, and the artist stays up all night dreaming about their shared love. In the morning, the older sister comes to say the girl has been taken away the night before by her mother. She smiles and walks away. The end.

The artist began lost and angry at the world, until within minutes his love turned it all around. A Very romantic play! The actor playing the artist is Alexander Sokovikov. It really helped that he had a Russian accent and a deep voice and that he had smoldering looks! And his acting was beautiful as well. He embodied the struggling, romantic artist. His passion was seen throughout, whether in anger having a philosophical and social discussion (why do peasants have to work so hard just to stay afloat? – an idea that is talked about even today) with the older sister or when he simply stood and held out his hand for his love to take it. He really lived the part.  And I believe the ladies loved him in it, as I did. I think I had a slight crush on him in this role!

The other actors were very good as well. Anna Lentz as the young love, Brittany Anikka Liu as the tough older sister trying to save the world, J. Paul Nicholas as the wealthy friend of the family and Katie Firth as the mother.  All did a wonderful job in this powerful and poignant play.

Some of the cast appeared in both plays. In total there were seven actors. After the first play, they all came out and sang a beautiful Russian song. They were also the stagehands as well and moved the background props to the new setting.

The second play gave the actors with the smaller parts from the first play, the leads. Such wonderful actors, we fell under the spell of watching them. The Tolstoy play was about a couple that meet a stranger who teaches them about love of mankind. It had a religious take on it as the mysterious man was an angel.  Once again Alexander Sokovikov was a standout in his short role as a Russian Noble. Anna Lentz played his servant. The married couple was played by Katie Firth and J. Paul Nicholas. Brittany Anikka Liu played a woman visiting the shoemaker.

(Vinie Burrows)

Seeing the same actors in new roles really made me appreciate how talented they were. One of the new actors in the second play was Vinie Burrows (age 95 ~ amazing!) who had been a child actor and traveled the world in a one-woman show. Another new actor was Malik Reed who played the angel Michael.  He had to play someone who at first did not speak much and who appeared somehow otherworldy or unusual in some way, which we still did not know why. Must we fear him or follow him? This was what we did not know until the end when he explained to the people on Earth why he was here and how he learned about the love of mankind.

These were heavy plays. Not modern, but not boring at all. I thoroughly enjoyed and am so glad I took my daughter who had lots of questions afterwards. The show had no intermission, which was good, since it would would have probably interrupted the flow.

I liked the set design (Roger Hanna), which was sparse and very Russian looking. Costumes (Oana Botez) were authentic. I loved the fur coat and hat on the Russian Noble (reminded me of Doctor Zhivago, the movie). Lights (Matthew Richards) were nicely done and not overpowering. Props (Natalie Carney) were authentic from the day. Rob Reese was the production manager, Jeff Meyers was the production stage manager, Andrea Jess Berkey was the stage manager and  Stephanie Klapper did the fine casting. Jonathan Bank was the producing artistic director.

Go see this production if you love the classics!

Performances are from January 23rd to March 14th, 2020


The Mint Theatre – Theater Row
410 West 42nd Street (between 9th and 10th), NYC

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