Of all the things Theatre of a Thousand Juliets’ latest production has going for it — and there are many –location (as in location, location) hits really close to the top of the list.
Set in the River District’s Wedge Gallery, there’s the perfect Dark Angel-cold, industrial ambience. The play begins when the gallery’s garage door is shut, leaving the room in an eerie blue glow. Trains grind by a few yards away. Water runs through pipes in the ceiling.
And yet, for all that’s Eastern-bloc and dark about Steven Dietz’s The Nina Variations — based on the final scene in Chekhov’s The Seagull — the Juliets cast never crosses that fatal line into pretension.
Bradley W. Smith plays failed playwright Treplev and Emily Austin is Nina, an actress and Treplev’s muse. In script, they torture one another, dancing around repetitive, esoteric themes — “What is life?”; “Who am I?” — as they careen through more than 40 variations on a relationship’s demise. We’ve all been there. We’ve all driven ourselves crazy, behaved badly, pleaded and raged. But that doesn’t mean seeing it on stage makes for a fun night out.
Yet Smith and Austin, through skillful (and often comedic) physical drama, make Dietz’s sometimes inaccessible and seemingly schizophrenic dialogue more human. While Austin is convincing in her austere, fragile facade (“There was a time when I was mystery, not monologue,” her character reports), Smith often transcends the play’s abstruse subject matter with an intensity of facial expression and gesture rarely seen in small, local theater.
In a production that could easily remain aloof and intellectual, the actors connect with the audience. Their kissing scenes leave spectators feeling both moved and too close. The postmortem of their relationship unfolds in moments of complete believability. And, even better, the script is full of transcendental gems (“Don’t reason with the unknown,” Treplev warns) that rise from emotional upheaval.
Breaking up is hard to do, but in the case of The Nina Variations, it’s a pleasure to watch.
— Alli Marshall
As part of Stoneleaf, The Nina Variations continues its run at Wedge Gallery (115 Roberts St.) through Sunday, June 5. See times in schedule box. For more information, visit www.1000juliets.org.