A rough-hewn slice of wedding cake, with plenty to chew over

Belvoir Street. November 10 Reviewed by DOUG ANDERSON

Pamela Rabe in The Little Cherry OrchardFor most people the prospect of a new millennium is attended by some sense of renewal. Such optimism is, of course, warranted as every last drop is squeezed from the withering 20th century. Wring out the old, ring in the new.
Much of the fin de siecle is, however, a rainbow’s end rather than a new dawn.
The tectonics of such flux are central to this unusual and, at times, difficult play by Alexev Slapovsky. The playwright uses a Russian wedding to examine the expectations of people who have been obliged to endure almost a century of broken promises, epic betrayal and corrupted ideology.
Are we marrying the old century to a bright new bimbo era or divorcing a tired old age littered with stillborn dreams, deception and double-crossing? Does hope spring eternal or is genuine aspiration unsustainable in a global spasm of venality, carpetbagging bastardry and incestuous opportunism that insists only the ruthless will prosper?
Anatoly Frusin offers an engagingly rough insight into Slapovsky’s themes, with his debut for Company B. Coarse at times but robust and ultimately provocative, his production is a shade untidy but never less than entertaining.
Azalkano (David Field) is an entrepreneur who has arranged to marry his girlfriend, a shrieking airhead (Gwyneth Price), in the attic of an abandoned building where he and his contemporaries spent much of their youth.
Azalkanov’s father hanged himself here, and it is here, too, that a young couple, representatives of spontaneous, wide-eyed optimism and phase-locked negativity, find themselves as unexpected wedding guests. It is also where a tiny cherry tree, growing by chance from a discarded seed in a fertile niche, struggles against the elements.
The building is to be developed as a hotel by Azalkanov, his partner, Minusinsky (Keith Robinson), and a maverick “American” carpetbagger. But demolition of such a symbol by the dictates of new capitalism is not a fait accompli.
The guests include his former wife, Elena (Pamela Rabe), another old comrade, Rozov (Damian Rice), and a former neighbour, old Mr Votkin —known as Vanya — (Ralph Cotterill).
Vanya has, for 30 years, fought a losing battle against opposing forces in nature in an effort to grow flowers. His planting and nurturing of blossoms suffer endless defeat. Grotesquely metaphorical? Simplistic? It’s a close call, and the play veers dangerously towards parody in illuminating its themes through unabashed melodrama and irony. Symbols clash and clang like great iron bells, but irrepressible — at times ribald — humour prevails.
The bride’s mother, Ranyayeva (Deborah Kennedy), a shopworn veteran of four failed marriages and a mixture of laconic fatalism, sarcasm and determination, represents a fairly unsavoury Mother Russia.
Dorotka Sapinska’s set design is bold, imposing restraints upon the physicality of the play and obliging the cast to totter around rafters and planks in the attic above a ceiling — never sure of their balance. The spaces between the rafters could well be graves — giving potent meaning to every action. It’s a stroke of genius capable of making or breaking the production.
It certainly doesn’t break it but, given the stronger sense of rhythm and momentum the production demands, it imposes limitations too. The play could easily plunge into a pessimistic blearout of satirical symbolism. It needs tightening and should get it if the director gives his more than capable actors their head. Kennedy is splendid and Cotterill once again crucial to the emotional undertow.
False dawns are nothing new in a country where opposing isms have failed to deliver, and only opportunism has emerged as the mother of survival. Human spirit, inextinguishable or not, has been debased and devalued, prostituted and exploited to a scarifying degree in this century.
Why embrace a new dawn which is really just another fireworks display? Why cling to a past that has been irredeemably pawned to undelivered expectations?
It is to be hoped that Azalkanov’s little cherry tree will take root in all the s— and splintered bone, and survive the mongrel dogs and howling cats to bear fruit in the spirit of its audiences.

The Sydney Morning Herald / 12 November 1999

Photos by Dorotka Sapinska