THE RUSSIAN PLAY/ESSAY By Hannah Moscovitch, directed by Natasha Mytnowych and Michael Rubenfeld (Company Theatre Crisis/Absit Omen Theatre/Factory Theatre, 125 Bathurst). To February 17. 416-504-9971. Rating: NNNN
Hannah Moscovitch’s two plays both deal with the place of women in history – female characters struggling to situate themselves in a broader sociological discourse. On another level, it’s just fun to see two plays on one bill, especially when they’re populated by keenly observed characters and one-liners like “Russia is like a 60-year-old woman. You know where it is, but no one wants to go there.”
A delicious little riddle about gender politics in contemporary academia, Essay begins when Jeffrey (Jordan Pettle), an earnest if slightly patronizing history TA, gently tries to tell first-year student Pixie (Claire Jenkins) that her proposed essay about an obscure historical female figure isn’t a suitable topic. Turf warfare between Jeffrey and the department’s stuffy and (covertly sexist) department head (Richard Greenblatt) over the place of women in contemporary historical discourse is the result.
Academia isn’t exactly a high-stakes arena, but Moscovitch and director Michael Rubenfeld build and sustain tension throughout. Pettle brings wide-eyed idealism to his role, and Greenblatt patience and cynicism as the aging professor.
If Essay involves two men warring over a woman’s mind, in The Russian Play two men battle over a woman’s heart. Here the backdrop is the dismal towns of Stalinist Russia, where the wry, defiant Aebovka (Michelle Monteith) tells the story of Sonja, a shy flower shop girl whose love affair with town gravedigger Piotr (Aaron Willis) leads her down a path that is as beautiful and shitty as the state of the country itself.
The Russian Play is arguably Moscovitch’s most sturdily constructed work yet, and Monteith is its pillar. Using physicality and a sackful of thick accents, she jumps from character to character in vignettes both funny and heartbreaking.
Folk-inspired dances and melancholic notes provided by violinist Tom Howell are tropes common to many a “Russian play,” and under Natasha Mytnowych’s sure direction they aren’t used to satirize, but rather to heighten the script’s wealth of emotion.