NY Review: 'Black Milk'

Palo de Agua and High Stakes Theatre at the East 13th Street Theatre

Reviewed by Ron Cohen

July 24, 2012


Photo by Carol Rosegg
Stuck in the flotsam of the Soviet dissolution, the backwater village presented as emblematic of present-day Russia in "Black Milk" is a place you would not want to visit and certainly not live in. As a narrator tells us at the play's start, "things are all painfully out of step here."

Russian playwright Vassily Sigarev depicts a bleak, primitive place where ignorant peasants are scammed by a pair of small-time crooks from the big city. Sigarev's work, including "Black Milk," has been applauded in London, playing the prestigious Royal Court Theatre and elsewhere, and the play's story resonates with palpable anger. The New York production has been directed by Michel Hausmann, who is artistic director of Palo de Agua, a Venezuelan theater company, and who is finishing his MFA in directing at Columbia University. The show marks Sigarev's New York debut. Unfortunately, it's not as persuasive as it should be, igniting fully into compelling drama only in its final moments.

Lyovchik and his very pregnant wife, Poppet, have done well selling toasters to the villagers—supposedly for free but with an outrageous delivery charge—and now are waiting in the rotting railroad station for a train to take them home. As they wait, Lyovchik tries to score a final killing with the station's hardboiled ticket agent and also has to fend off a gaggle of townsfolk who've learned they've been taken and want their money back. The wait ends not with a train but with the impending arrival of Poppet's baby.

Act 2 is 10 days later, and Poppet, with the help of a kindly village woman, has given birth. She has also seen God and transformed into someone who wants to be kind to others and to stop being "a bitch." When she tells Lyovchik that she's not going back with him to the city, things erupt into shattering violence, and the play suddenly comes alive. Until this point it's been a hard slog.

As Lyovchik and Poppet, Josh Marcantel and Liba Vaynberg can't seem to find enough variety in their portrayals to relieve the sameness of the couple's relentlessly foulmouthed bickering. Four-letter words overwhelm the script, translated by Sasha Dugdale, and quickly become off-putting.

Furthermore, the sense of place, so important to the story, is dissipated by the mixed accents of the villagers, particularly the nasal drawl used with apparent relish by the loquacious station agent and the compassionate midwife. Familiar regional dialects can sometimes help identify a character's place in a foreign society, but here it's just jarring. It sounds like we're deep in the heart of Texas.

Presented by Palo de Agua and High Stakes Theatre at the East 13th Street Theatre, 136 E. 13th St., NYC. July 24–Aug. 4. Tue.–Thu., 7 p.m.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 and 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. (212) 868-4444 or www.smarttix.com.
 

 
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