Black Milk Rails Away

Russia goes offtrack in Vassily Sigarev's angry drama

You won't mistake the set of Vassily Sigarev's Black Milk for Grand Central. Really, it makes even Port Authority seem hygienic. This decrepit train station connects travelers in backwater Russia to what, in the words of the narrator, is "definitely not a village. In fact, it's not really even a populated place." Late one winter night, the depot's stained linoleum, scarred walls, and sciatica-inducing plastic chairs cradle the sozzled narrator and two out-of-towners: small-time huckster Lyovchik (Josh Marcantel) and his very pregnant wife, Poppet (Liba Vaynberg).

Sigarev's play, which made a murky splash at the Royal Court in 2003, details the toxic relations of these parents-to-be. Poppet is a cigarette-smoking, vodka-swilling, lollipop-sucking harridan with a swollen belly and a filthy mouth. Her most tender endearment: "Fuck off, asshole." At first, Lyovchik, a leather-jacketed smoothie with a tightly curled beard, seems the victim of her whims and tirades, but the script soon exposes a nasty strain of abuse.

Sigarev has further thematic concerns. One is the spiritual and actual poverty of the new Russia. The derisive ticket clerk (Anna Wilson) wears a Chinese leather coat and a Polish beauty mask. She lines her pockets selling home brew, which occasionally poisons the locals—the same people who buy Lyovchik's rickety Malaysian toasters. "They don't even deliver bread around here," notes the clerk. Sigarev also has an abiding interest in corruption. The title fluid perhaps refers to Poppet's breast milk, too tainted to nurture her baby. But it carries echoes of the thousands of Ukrainian children, sickened by radioactive milk in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster. It also condemns Poppet and Lyovchik's bond, which is noxious rather than mutually nourishing.

Maybe done a little better at the Royal Court.
Carol Rosegg
Maybe done a little better at the Royal Court.


Black Milk
By Vassily Sigarev
East 13th Street Theatre
136 East 13th Street

Yet these topics and tropes don't entirely emerge in Michel Hausmann's unnuanced, indifferently acted production. Hausmann, an ambitious student in Columbia's MFA program, seems attracted to the vulgar fireworks of the script, but not to the emotional and social anguish underlying the verbal blasts. Sigarev's play offers a raw, discomfiting ride, but Hausmann never quite gets us onboard.

My Voice Nation Help

The U.S. debut of Vassily Sigarev’s “Black Milk” reintroduces Americans to the plight of Post-Soviet Russia as she weans herself from communism and rechristens her people as Capitalists. The play follows the apoplectic newlywed couple of Lyovchik and his gravid wife Poppet as they smoke and curse waiting for a train to brisk them away from the provinces back to St. Petersburg. Lyovchik and Poppet have ventured deep into their “Boundless Motherland” to swindle their fellow countrymen into purchasing defective Malaysian toasters. The dysfunctional duo discover the peasantry have little need for an electric toaster as any spare change is put to the purchase of bootlegged, often poisonous, booze homebrewed by a citified rail ticket-clerk. Regardless, or because of this epidemic, Lyovchik and Poppet are able to make a few sales before boarding the train home.

Jonathan Crary observed, “Modernization is a process by which capitalism uproots and makes mobile that which is grounded.” In “Black Milk” modernization is not an altogether welcome guest. Instead of bringing wealth for the welfare of the village people, outsiders from the Russian cities have mobilized their corruption and inflicted it upon the provinces.  In the playwright’s youth, Sigarev bore witness to maladies of this kind as a new Russia emerged from the ashes of the Soviet Union. A native of an area rich in titanium, Sigarev and his peers made considerable sums rifling through waste pits of defunct factories to uncover and resell the available titanium. Soon, however, their winnings were funneled towards drugs and alcohol, and eventually the income petered out. This is a motif Sigarev uses to illuminate the travails of contemporary Russia in this play.

New York Concert Tickets