A Beautiful Month in the Country? As You Wish.

jeff lillico and tal gottfried
photo by cylla von tiedemann
While I was at University doing my degrees in theatre studies I was often struck with the way my professors’ eyes would twinkle in a delighted and slightly mischievous way whenever our work was messy. Sometimes as students we would make very clear and expected choices, but the greatest conversations about themes and characters and our insightful inspiration concerning plays and playwrights most often sprung out of our intricate webs of imperfect ideas. László Marton’s production of A Month in the Country, which plays at Soulpepper Theatre until August 7th, 2010, is a perfect example of how making innovative, bold theatrical choices can enrich one’s experience with a particular play and how much fodder for reflection and discussion complex ideas can inspire.
This rendition of A Month in the Country was adapted by Marton with Susan Coyne in a way that modernized certain aspects of the language without changing too many of the play’s details or overtly changing the setting from Russia in the mid 1800s. This is further complicated by Morton’s direction, which almost appears to treat each generation of characters as though they are living in a different decade. The props and costumes span nearly a century and include items from the 1930s to far more modern items, such as a skateboard and a plastic inflatable duck. What I found so interesting about this choice was that while it certainly gave the play a dose of ambiguity, it was not an element that I was fixated upon, nor one that I felt detracted from the actors’ ability to bring this story to life.
A Month in the Country was written by Russian playwright and novelist Ivan Turgenev, and it is reminiscent of the works of Anton Chekhov and Leo Tolstoy, although it predates all of Chekhov’s plays and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. In 1850 the Russian censor refused to allow the play to be produced in its original form because its protagonist’s behaviour was considered immoral and provocative and Turgenev’s refusal to overtly sermonize on the actions of his characters was seen as being highly controversial. The play was not produced in Russia until 1872 and did not become part of the Russian theatrical canon until it was directed by Constantin Stanislavsky at the Moscow Art Theatre in 1909.
Since by the standards of his own time Turgenev was considered to have modern ideas about love, passion, marriage, women, children and the social codes and conventions that defined Russian life, it seems appropriate that László Marton’s production reflects how the issues confronted in A Month in the Country continue to not only resonate, but resonate controversially across the decades since the 1850s and into our own time. Marton has also managed to liberate this story from the repressed severity that has become associated with a lot of late nineteenth century drama, which can seem dull or alienating to contemporary audiences.
Fiona Byrne plays Natalya Petrovna, a married woman caught between her best friend and platonic lover, Rakitin, and her bourgeoning infatuation with her son’s young tutor, Aleksei Belyaev. The situation becomes disastrous when she realizes that her eighteen year old ward, Vera, is also in love with the tutor and she must decide whether to concede to youth and blissful innocence or use her power and experience in matters of the heart to manipulate the situation in her favour, even if she destroys a young girl’s heart in the process. Byrne, who is stunningly beautiful, plays Natalya with a blithe, natural flirtiness that appears at times almost unintentional. She is coyly manipulative and both wildly passionate and cordially distant depending on whom she is speaking to and Byrne fills her, flaws and all, with so much earnest humanity it is difficult to determine whether she is a heartless villainess or an utterly tragic hero.
David Storch plays Arkady, Natalya’s cuckolded husband, with a nice balance of jovial denial and deeply repressed fear and anger which culminates into a dramatic, yet also oddly humorous, incident involving a bucket filled with water. Diego Matamoros gives a customarily detailed and riveting performance as Rakitin, who grows more lethargic, miserable, judgmental and loathing of all the other characters onstage as each scene progresses but never manages to lose sight of Rakitin’s heart. Nancy Palk and Joseph Ziegler share an awkward, yet delightfully hilarious, scene surrounding Doctor Shpigelsky’s (Ziegler), distain for social airs, graces and etiquette and his view that marriage to a middle aged spinster (Palk) is their most sensible course of action. Watching the subtly between these two theatre legends is captivating theatre at its best.
Despite spanning an array of different time periods, László Marton uses extreme realism to create the world of this play for his audience, including a drenching rain and a tire swing on which Fion Byrne soared directly over my head. This realism particularly suits the relationship between Aleksei and Vera, played by Jeff Lillico and Tal Gottfried respectively. Dressed in modern clothing, Lillico and Gottfried create a sweet relationship for their characters filled with exuberance, fun and all the delights of the countryside in the summer. Together they are reminiscent of characters from a romantic comedy, which, I think adds to the heartbreak of their bourgeoning connection being so drastically thwarted before it has ample time to bloom.
Jeff Lillico is swathed in boyish charm in this role, completely devoid of ego, yet understandably irresistible to all the young women in the play. Tal Gottfried is especially brilliant as Vera, a still very naive and childlike eighteen year old tomboy whose introduction to us is her eating jam, with her fingers, directly from the jar. Her love for Aleksei is pure, but Gottfried turns fierce as her world crashes around her, but never uproots Vera from being a teenager. She has an equally moving connection to Byrne’s Natalya which enriches the play’s inherent tragedy nicely. I did feel as though the chemistry between Lillico and Gottfried’s characters felt perhaps a bit too intense at times, considering Aleksei maintains that his feelings for her are purely like a brother and younger sister. However, even this only complicates the dynamics of the performance, since it is entirely possible that he is not being forthwith when asked to describe their relationship.
There is so much that is intriguing, and excitingly so, about László Marton’s production of A Month in the Country and even though all the elements never quite add up perfectly, the flawed nature of these choices only seem to enrich Turgenev’s deeply flawed characters and the intricate tale they weave. The performances are uniformly breathtaking and everything else is the sort of theatrically messy work that makes my eyes twinkle with delighted and slightly mischievous fascination.
Soulpepper’s production of A Month in the Country plays at  The Young Centre for the Performing Arts (Michael Young Theatre) at 55 Mill Street Building #49, Toronto. For tickets or for more information please call 416.866.8666 or go online to www.soulpepper.ca.

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