Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Past Is Still Ahead

How did I respond to The Past Is Still Ahead, written and directed by Sophia Romma, at the Midtown International Theatre Festival? Let me count the ways: I thought it was brave, moving, intense, smart, overdone, kinda laughable, and kinda wonderful. Mostly, I admired it. I admired the work and love that went into it. I admired the sheer commitment of it.

Alice Bahlke
Photo: Jonathan Slaff
But let's back up a bit. The Past Is Still Ahead gives us Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva, exiled in Siberia after a life of terrible loss, much of it at the hands of the Soviets (One daughter starved to death; the other was arrested; her husband was arrested and executed.)

Now on the verge of suicide, Tsvetaeva is examining her life, loves, and work. In a way, she is justifying herself to us, the audience, explaining her treatment of her children, her mistrust of her mother, her affairs, her life, her devotion to her writing above all else. She tells us stories, she corresponds with Rainer Maria Rilke, she argues with her mother, she is visited by an apparition billed as "Mariana's muse and spiritual alter-ego" (but who comes across as death), she is interrogated by the NKVD (the forerunner of the KGB).

Romma has used some of Tsvetaeva's and Rilke's writing, supplemented with much of her own, often written in more or less successful rhyming triplets. She has directed the show with a rarely remitting intensity, and watching it can feel like being pummeled by a tsunami of words. She has guided her cast to brave and impassioned--but occasionally overdone--performances.

But, and this is a big but, the show is 100% successful at depicting the sheer insane fire of a brilliant woman who has had everything taken from her, except the power to end her own life.

While the show is all about words, words, and words, Romma uses other art forms well. The muse/death character speaks only once (a mistake, I think; she shouldn't have spoken at all) but instead  communicates through beautiful wordless singing. And Tsvetaeva's lover Sophia Parnoc interacts with her via a wonderful, expressive solo tango.

The cast is somewhat uneven. Alice Bahlke as Tsvetaeva gives the role her all, and she is dynamic, often effective, and always impressive (the sheer work of learning that part is daunting), though a little more subtlety would have been welcome. Tosh Marks is perhaps miscast as Rilke and various other men in Tsvetaeva's life; his personality and presence don't quite gel. Liora Michelle sang beautifully as the muse/death; Nuria Martinez Mendez managed to provide a full human being through her dance, which she also choreographed; and Bettina Bennett was wholly convincing as Tsvetaeva's mother.

The show, which is being performed in a theatre the size of a large studio apartment, uses the space well, with excellent set, costume, sound, and lighting design by, respectively, Inna Bodner, Anastasia Glebova, Dmitri German, and Gennadi Birushov. 

I'd like to end this with a word of thanks to all the festivals in New York that give opportunities for shows like this one to have a life. At an hour long, and with a limited potential audience, The Past Is Still Ahead doesn't fit into the existing models of commercial and nonprofit theatre. But it is a compelling piece that deserves to be seen.

(4th row; press ticket)

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