Poetic language can sometimes unlock layers of meaning to an audience in a way natural language would not. This works best when the performance is grounded in a deep understanding of intent and the internal life of the characters, and for this to be communicated to the audience by clear direction and specific choices. Without this clarity, the poetics can muddy the waters and leave a gap between the story and the audience’s understanding.
La Mama’s production of Tchekov at the House of Special Purpose attempts to straddle this divide, and assembles a competent team both on and off stage to bring us the story of the last days of the Romanovs. While the play assembles all of the right ingredients, and often comes close to greatness, it never quite achieves the sublime, more often than not getting bogged down by the weight of the words and events densely packed into its 90 minute running time.
The events of the play take place in the titular ‘House of Special Purpose’, a house-turned-prison where the Tsar and his family have privileges and freedoms slowly removed from them before their final demise. Each member of the royal family are trying in their own way to distract themselves from reality, with simple pleasantries like a bath or rare cake, more consuming vices of anaesthetics to soothe an apparent hypochondria, or with more wholesome attempts to rally morale through the performance of plays (the ‘Tchekov’). Their captors are equally varied in their approaches, following either their passions or the letter of the law to reassure their convictions in turn.
This wide array of characters are presented almost as a laundry list of the ways in which different personalities might respond to such an intense situation. The interplay between these responses could be fascinating, but as an audience we’re not given enough time to ground ourselves in the world or prepare to navigate the complex dynamics. The introduction to these characters feels rushed and unsteady, and so we spend more time working out who they are and how they relate to each other than what drives them and how we might identify with that. This is where the poetic nature of the dialogue undermines a deeper understanding, where a more straightforward approach might not have fallen into the same pitfalls. Audience members with prior knowledge of the Russian royal family might not struggle as much, but a shallow or passing interest won’t help you here.
In spite of this murkiness, there’s still a lot of substance to dig into throughout. The surprisingly large cast provide solid performances, with notable achievements for the Tsar (Jim Daly), the doctor (Phil Roberts), and the family’s loyal chef (Gregory J. Fryer), each providing some of the clearest navigation of their characters complex relationships.
Shane Grant’s lighting design helps to provide a little more separation of time and space, serving to assist the specifics of the dialogue – but seems not to be interested in enhancing the emotions of the scenes, letting the dialogue and performances speak for themselves. Costuming by Michael Mumford also serves the story well – simple and subtle, but providing necessary character reinforcement while driving the period aesthetic.
Settings by Peter Mumford were visually interesting, and contained a few welcome surprises and reveals, but ultimately does little to ground the blocking, feeling a little more like a crumbling amphitheatre than a functional house. While the sound design by Zac Kazepis is full of great ideas, it can at times feel heavy handed or painted with broad brush strokes, making up for in bombast what it sometimes lacks in finesse. Each element of the overall production design is good in isolation, but there’s a lack of coordination that leaves them working harder than they would if supporting each other.
Appealing to lovers of Russian history and poetic theatre, Tchekov at the House of Special Purpose is a solid offering from a talented cast and crew. While it never quite soars to transcendent levels of theatre, it will still provide entertainment, food for thought, and a little more insight into the humanity of both royal and revolutionary.
Tchekov at the House of Special Purpose is playing at the La Mama Courthouse until September 8, 2019.