What to do when your husband is dead, a revolution is raging in the streets—and your new monologue just isn’t working? In Neva—written and directed by Chilean playwright Guillermo Calderón, and now playing at the Public—we travel to politically tumultuous St. Petersburg to meet the troubled actress Olga Knipper, widow of the great Chekhov himself. It’s January, 1905, and Knipper is hunkered down in a theater with two fellow performers rehearsing The Cherry Orchard—or planning to, anyway, since no one is sure where the director is. No matter: There’s plenty of acting to do in the meantime, and in Calderón’s lovely, disturbing drama, these performers, waiting and improvising, become an image for a whole country caught in violent transition.
The pressing problem for Knipper (Bianca Amato), though, is more immediate: How can she go on without her husband, the theatrical genius? Should she give up love, or acting, or both? Seeking enlightenment, she employs fellow performers Masha (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) and Aleko (Luke Robertson) in an impromptu restaging of Chekhov’s deathbed scene. Much swooning and wailing ensues, along with clamorous arguments over who can mimic a truly tubercular cough. Other reenactments follow—drawn from both art and life—as the three down vodka shots, debate politics, and test their acting skills by playing cruel jokes on each other. Meanwhile, the massacre of civilian protesters known as Bloody Sunday—a cruel joke of historic proportions—unfolds elsewhere in the city, and before long, the lines between inside and outside, theater and reality, begin to blur.
In Calderón’s starkly elegant staging, the three actors crowd onto a tiny, red-carpeted platform, with a single light source throwing long shadows into the darkness all around. Amato, Bernstine, and Robertson are pitch-perfect, careening through the densely poetic language at breakneck speed. And if the play’s conceit begins to feel a tad repetitive by the end, there are so many linguistic surprises that we hardly notice.
Chekhov was a master at registering seismic social shifts in the subtlest of stage directions, and he wrote idealistic characters who practically leap out of his plays, railing at their societies’ limitations and imagining utopian futures, while also vividly demonstrating how empty rhetoric without action can be. Here, it’s not so much people as historical events that jostle each other for space, as Russian history increasingly intrudes on artistic creation. Calderón’s drama is Chekhovian in the best sense—not because Chekhov is part of the story, but because the questions he posed are asked anew in this portrait of a society teetering between a vanishing old world and the bloody new one yet to come.