With a script that has substantial basis in historical fact, it seems strange that Yale Repertory Theatre’s “Black Snow” is so distanced from reality.
The play, adapted by Keith Reddin, is based on a novel written by Mikhail Bulgakov in the 1930s. Aptly titled “Theatrical Novel” in Russian, the book recounts the difficulties of a young writer adapting his first novel into a play. Truly the epitome of “meta,” this production adapts Bulgakov’s book — about adapting his novel, “The White Guard,” for the Moscow Art Theatre — for the stage.
Even through the layers of adaptation, Bulgakov’s experiences remain very present in the pseudo-autobiographical “Black Snow.” The story follows novelist Sergei Leontievich (Adam Stein), a character modeled after Bulgakov himself, as he attempts to adapt his novel, “Black Snow,” into a play for the Independent Theatre. In doing so, he must follow the aesthetic principles of the Theatre’s Ivan Vasilievich (veteran Yale Rep performer Alvin Epstein), a thinly-veiled stand-in for Konstantin Stanislavsky, co-founder of the Moscow Art Theatre. Stanislavsky is highly regarded for his creation of the “Method of Physical Action,” in which actors use personal psychology to inform a role.
“Black Snow” certainly presents compelling concepts; the anxiety of being the underdog, the difficulties of collaboration and the creation of artistic vision are all ideas captured in the script, pleading to be explored.
Perhaps even more intriguing are questions of a historical nature. Bulgakov, a staunch opponent of the Soviet regime, constantly dealt with governmental censorship of his work. Ultimately, he asked for permission to emigrate if he could not practice his work — a request that was denied. Sergei goes through the same trials, with little more success than his creator.
The Yale Rep’s production flourishes when examining these issues. Scenes between Epstein and Stein are captivating. Their negotiations over Sergei’s controversial material are at once hysterical and sobering; behind the hilarious absurdity of the arguments lies the grim reality of the oppressive era.
Yet this absurdity is often taken too far by the other members of the company, many of whom play multiple roles. Rather than bring out the humor — though it is dark — inherent in the situation, the characters become ridiculous caricatures, mugging to the audience. In one example, Rudolphi (Brian Hutchison) unexpectedly visits Sergei and requests to publish his book. Not only is his stomping entrance announced with thunder and lightning, but his voice is altered to rumble so loudly that it visibly shakes those on stage. (Incidentally, the reasons for Rudolphi’s desire to help Sergei are never explained.)
Although these exaggerated gestures may be an attempt to heighten the contrast between Sergei and the new, unusual characters he encounters, it is unnecessary; this disparity is clear in their mere words and attitudes. The ultimate effect is that the reality behind the play’s historical and artistic questions is glossed over in a rush to get a laugh.
The visual presentation of this reality, however, is flawless. The costumes designed by Rachel Myers DRA ’07 are striking representations of the period and the lighting, by Stephen Strawbridge, is artfully designed. Dustin Eshenroder’s DRA ’07 sets are particularly effective in convincingly evoking the play’s numerous locations through the use of a few key pieces, such as cloth panels and a chandelier for a luxurious party or a bulletin board and telephones to create a box office. Most stunning is the use of a backdrop painted to resemble the view of a theater from onstage, as if the audience is looking back on itself.
The opening announcements also attempt to involve the audience through Soviet references and jokes. Before the lights go up, an announcement urges, “You will enjoy the play.” But perhaps it’s more realistic that you don’t — in Soviet Russia, wouldn’t the play enjoy you?
Yale Repertory Theater
Through Dec. 23.
Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.
Sat., 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.