ORPHANS FOR THE CZAR by George F. Walker (Crow’s Theatre). Runs to April 24 at the Streetcar Crowsnest (345 Dundas East). $40-$55, some discounts available. crowstheatre.com. Rating: NNN
George F. Walker’s Orphans For The Czar is set in 1905 St. Petersburg and shows the actions of a despotic ruler using violence and lies to snuff out intellectual dissent and freedom.
Sound familiar? Crow’s Theatre programmed the play long before Vladimir Putin’s brutal attack on Ukraine. But the play’s timely look at a polarized society on the eve of total collapse would resonate even without the Russia-Ukraine war.
Small-town orphan Vasley (Paolo Santalucia) is starving, unhappy and, with the exception of his blind friend Rayisha (Shayla Brown), unloved. He’s regularly beaten by fellow villager Yakov (Christopher Allen). When his Uncle Piotr (Eric Peterson) suggests he go live and work with his relative in St. Petersburg, he goes, but things are just as bleak there – and more dangerous.
Piotr’s half-sibling/possible cousin, called Master and also played by Peterson, is a lecherous, tyrannical owner of a bookstore who doesn’t pay Vasley, forces him to sleep on the floor and demands that, in addition to working in the store, the young man procure him women to sleep with.
At the bookstore, Vasley meets some interesting patrons, including the passionate student revolutionaries Olga (Michelle Mohammed) and her sister Maya (Shauna Thompson), who open his eyes to progressive ideas. But soon he’s enlisted by the slick Makarov (Patrick McManus), who pays him to spy on the store’s patrons so the Czar can keep tabs on any dissenters.
Vasley is the spiritual cousin of many tragicomic, put-upon Russian characters, like The Overcoat’s Akaky Akakievich. (Orphans For The Czar was “suggested” by Maxim Gorky’s novel The Life Of A Useless Man.) The trouble with him as a dramatic focal point, however, is that he’s so passive. That’s likely Walker’s point – that people without convictions can be swayed to do anything – but it doesn’t make for very exciting viewing.
Walker also clutters the play with too many characters, like Rayisha and Yakov, who don’t have very much to do. And despite it being marketed as a comedy, it’s not very funny.
That said, director Tanja Jacobs’s production is strong. Lorenzo Savoini’s set is sturdy and open enough to suggest various locales, while Logan Raju Cracknell’s lighting – especially his use of shadow – is atmospheric and moody. Ming Wong’s costumes help delineate the different classes, while sound designer Thomas Ryder Payne’s soundscape brings the excitement of this chaotic world to vivid life.
Of the actors, Peterson stands out with his inspired turns as two very different exploiters. He’s so brilliant that he can make a descent down a staircase into a show-stopping comic turn worthy of the great stage and film clowns.