Chicago Theatre Review
Cosmic Events are upon Us: The Romanov Play
The Waltzing Mechanics present a theatrical epic by Keely Leonard
This is a play about a family. A happy family. A God-fearing family, with a husband and wife who adore each other, one sick but scrappy son, four precocious daughters, and a collection of wacky but loyal friends. The kind of people one would wish joy to, the kind of people known everywhere. But this family are the Romanovs, specifically Tzar Nicholas II (Lew Wallace), Tzarina Alexandra (Adrienne Matzen), who, despite their desire to be good, allowed the execution, persecution, and repressions of millions and through neglect, let the Russian state fall to the enormities of world war, revolution, and Stalinist tyranny. Conducted by The Messenger (Tim Lueke) we fall with an Empire through thirty seven years and three acts, buoyed by humor, buffeted by the cold winds of facts, and hurtling toward the basement floor in the city of Yekaterinburg.
Writer-director Keely Leonard has repurposed the Ebenezer Lutheran Church into that most magical of theater spaces: where great feats of wonder are accomplished by the simplest actions, using her wide ranging and versatile cast, shadow puppets (courtesy of Myra Su), and a precise sense of how transform one moment to another. Threaded through, but never over laden, with the facts of the case (the case being all of Russian history from the end of the 19th century to Stalin’s rise), the Messenger’s lesson is also just the story of telling a story as he tries to wrangle his cast together, from the royal children, who persist in having a good time and busting out of the chronology, to the various revolutionaries all wanting their moment in the spotlight, to drunk and unruly Rasputin (Martin Monahan), all of which Lueke weathers with enthusiasm, perfectly pitched frustration, and a sharp earnestness.
Measuring comedy and tragedy in equal hands we are treated both to madcap adventures like the bro-y bisexual murder of Rasputin and Vladimir Lenin (Zach Bundy), Bolshevik comedian, to the anguish of young Prince Alexi’s (Tanner Walters) porphyria and its effect on his life and family, to dizzyingly sweet romance, to the real danger of the times. There are a few points in the third act where the overall scale snags on one or two overly dramatic points, but by and large the show moves seamlessly. The rapid overlay of a boisterous family, shifts to slapstick historical explanation and back again, heralded by some unforeseen flourish, (a point where the ensemble, in darkness, on the very edge of hearing whispered “The Internationale” as Karen M Thompson swamped the stage in the tide of red light brought me all over in chills.) And sometimes silence, and the quiet, grim work can be the most effective effect of all.
So large is the cast, and so wide the variety of talents, that they carry the play on their own. To sample but a few: Lakecia Harris’s effervescent wryness as Alexandra Kollantai, revolutionary feminist; Maximllian Lapine as the gently avuncular Dr. Botkin, Thomas Sparks as the marvelously understated Charles Sydney Gibbes, to Matzen’s Shakespearian anxiety as the outsider queen, and Wallace’s dad-joke humor that serves him so well with his family and failed so piteously with the people. But especial attention must be payed to the four daughters: Olga (Julia MacMillan) who’s courtship with a common solider (Bundy, again) is the very soul of sweetness, to Tatiana (Gloria Petrelli) whose delightful smugness lights up the room, even in a Siberian hovel, who gleams as she careful arranges her siblings lives for them, to Maira (Elena Victoria Feliz), brim-full of concern and Chekovian duty, and the irrepressible, unsinkable, Anastasia (Chloe Dzielak). Dzielak has a gift for connecting with anyone and everyone on stage, and makes this boisterous, slightly crazed, creation of the princess to blaze with radiance, which makes her snuffing of that light truly, gut-churningly, horrifying.
Whatever else they were, matters or monsters, what Leonard has found in the Romanovs, and sought to present to us, was that they were a family, truly loving and truly happy. If they had perhaps been a little less concerned with each other, the isolation from the sharp edges of the world, history might have been very different. And for all it’s magic and wonder, its smartly pressed casts and wild wit, where Leonard’s story excels is just painting that happy family, clinging together in the eye of the hurricane, just like any other,
Warning: contains bright lights, simulated gun fire, and deep sadness. Call your family afterwards.
Highly Recommended by Ben Kemper
The Ebenezer Lutheran Church 1650 W. Foster Avenue (not far from the Berwyn Redline Stop)
Runs 11/4-26 Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at 7:30, Saturday Matinees at 2:30.
Tickets $30 in advance, $35 at the door.
Running time: Two hours and thirty minutes (but worth every second)
For more information visit www.waltzingmechanics.org/boxoffice
For more plays visit Theaterinchicago.org.