Bec Willett is an Australian, Chicago-based director, designer, educator, and writer. She has worked on projects with an array of Chicago theater companies, including 20% Theatre, Chicago Dramatists, City Lit, Dandelion Theatre, Prologue Theatre, and Waltzing Mechanics. To find out more about her work and upcoming projects, please visit becwillett.com.
Pictured: Sam Cass, Jeremy Schaye, Gavin Farrow, and Boris Kofman. Photo by Dmitriy Yakubov.
By Bec Willett
Bluebird Arts’ production of THE ELDER SON by Alexander Vampilov is what you’d expect from a two and half hour Russian comedy. Arguably the first performance of the English translation in the U.S., this version takes place on a set of muted palette of earth tones, features a large cast of flawed characters, and grapples with themes of unrequited love, family, and belonging.
Vladimir Petrovich Busygin (Sam Cass) and his new friend the clownish Sevastyanov Silva (Jeremy Schaye) are young men who have spent the night in pursuit of women. When their overtures are rebuffed they end up stuck in a small Russian town for the night. To gain warmth and shelter until the next bus arrives, Busygin finagles them into local Andrei Grigoryevich Sarafanov’s (Boris Kofman) home under the guise of being his long-lost son. As time passes and relationships develop, this lie only creates more trouble as he discovers that the core of his flippant lie was his heart’s desire.
Similar to Chekhov, this comedy is more contemplative than farcical – heavier on the monologue, lighter on the one-liners. While the latter is well-timed —delivering the promised laughter — the humor and accompanying commentary that lies in the foibles of the characters is missing, making the play float past rather than drive home. Even so, the cast executes their parts with confidence, so that while the experience may lack impact, it is an enjoyable one. Of note is Cass, whose ability to remain in-the-moment while responding with such organic specificity makes his performance particularly engaging.
In a world that too often seems to focused on division rather than inclusion, it makes sense to produce a play that deals with the yearning to belong. However, what is worrisome is this play’s portrayal of women. While many of the characters possess some irrationality when it comes to love and attraction, it’s particularly one of the two female characters – Natasha Makarskaya – who is seen to epitomize this, her good looks seemingly equal to her fickleness. As multiple men try to seduce her, her desires seem to change without rationale and the pervasive attitude is that her “no” is negotiable and her “yes” just a matter of time and nagging. While these constructs may have rung true to the mid-sixties, the era in which the play was written, this production makes no commentary on this problematic behavior — instead choosing to normalize the jokes made at Makarskaya’s expense.
Bluebird Arts’ cross-cultural goals which led to this English production of THE ELDER SON are admirable. While this production may competently tell the top layer of the story, it does not fully unleash the play’s potential for comedy and commentary on the world around us.
THE ELDER SON runs through December 22. For more information visit bluebirdarts.org.