Oct 19, 2011 Russ Tarby Uncategorized
If the downfall of Russia’s Romanov Dynasty had no hemophiliac prince and no controversial cleric, it would still be a story brimming with romance, revenge and revolution. But the presence of the bleeding boy Alexie and the over-sexed holy man Rasputin elevate the tale of the royal family’s fate to epic proportions.
No wonder the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II during the 1917 Russian Revolution has inspired so many marvelous movies, from 1932’s “Rasputin and the Empress” to the Disney-animated “Anastasia” in 1997.
Now, Syracuse’s award-winning playwright and producer Garrett Heater adds his meticulously researched stage play, “The Romanovs,” to the list of dramas documenting the Tsar’s inevitable undoing.
Presented by the Covey Theatre Company at the Mulroy Civic Center, downtown, “The Romanovs” stars David Witanowski as Tsar Nicholas II, known here as “Nicky,” and Katharine Gibson as Empress Alexandra, known here as “Alex,” and Bruce Paulsen as Rasputin, known here as “our friend.”
All three principals create characters overflowing with authenticity while plagued by individual weaknesses. Witanowski’s tsar is kindly, overcautious and ultimately indecisive. Gibson’s empress evinces a degree of intensity unusual for turn-of-the-century women. Alex is both headstrong and heart-sick. Her resolve weakens rapidly, however, when her meddlesome friend, Anna (a delightful Kate Huddleston) introduces her to the charismatic Rasputin. For his part, Paulsen turns the priapic priest into a monstrous manipulator whose motivations rarely stray from drunkenness and debauchery.
Support cast sparkles
While the leads — especially Gibson — charge the two-act play with an electric verisimilitude, several supporting players also sparkle.
As Alexandra’s sister, the Grand Duchess Elizabeth, actress Amy Blumer plays two terrific scenes with Gibson, one in which Elizabeth describes the bloody aftermath of her husband’s 1905 assassination by bomb and one in which she says goodbye to the empress forever after clashing with her over Rasputin in 1918.
Robert Kovak, the play’s only actor with actual background in the Russian language, shines as the military leader Grand Duke Nikolasha, and 9-year-old actor Christof Deboni portrays a charming Alexie, the medically challenged heir to the throne.
As Maria, the governess of the royal family’s five children, Kimberly Panek expresses a wide spectrum of emotions. In the first scene, she glows as she carries into the reception hall the infant son, Alexie, played by a real newborn, Calvin Mele. Later, an arrogant Rasputin ruthlessly rapes Maria who is soon fired after she refuses to acknowledge him as an honored palace guest.
As Nicky’s mother the Dowager Empress Dagmar, Susan Blumer excels as a cranky, autocratic busybody yearning for the dynasty’s glory days while boldly disapproving her son’s inability to send Rasputin packing.
Rounding out the cast are Amy Ligoci, Maya Dwyer, Liz Russell, Esther Richardson, John Price and Michael Penny.
Terror staged tastefully
Covey’s crew — director/costumer Heater, lighting technician Bob Dwyer, prop mistress Susan Blumer and stage manager Tim Hahn — all deserve credit for decisions and effects which smoothly support the script and the cast.
For instance, the difficult rape scene — while bordering on brutal — is convincingly staged, as it must be to confirm Rasputin’s true nature. The final scene of the family’s mass execution depicts terror tastefully as Dwyer’s flashing lights mimic the flurry of gunshots in the basement of a house in the Ural Mountains.
A couple constructive criticisms: while Karen Procopio styled wonderful wigs for the ladies, she seemed befuddled by Rasputin, whose bobby-pin littered straight black coif jarringly clashes with his curly black beard. And, though the action takes place between 1905 and 1918, the royal family never seems to age. Unfortunately, the audience ages plenty as the play times out at two hours and 45 minutes, at least a half-hour too long.
Despite those picayune complaints, “The Romanovs” rises well above the level at which we find most local theater. Heater, who won deserved accolades for last year’s “Lizzie Borden Took an Axe,” has done it again. Syracuse is lucky to have the youthful Heater honing his prodigious talents here. Theatrically speaking, this guy’s a genius.
“The Romanovs” concludes its run at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Oct. 21-22, at the Bevard Theater, Mulroy Civic Center, 411 Montgomery St., downtown. Tickets cost $20; 420-3729; thecoveytheatrecompany.com.
Russ Tarby’s column appears weekly in The Eagle and online at theeaglecny.com. He also covers the arts and sports. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.