Hercules in Russia

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Editorial Review

A less-than-Herculean effort
By Celia Wren
Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2012

A red doorway looms tall on the set of Allyson Currin's historical drama "Hercules in Russia," receiving its world premiere from the Doorway Arts Ensemble. With severe right angles that contrast with more naturalistic decor - a wardrobe, a desk with a silver tray and decanter, and other furnishings meant to suggest czarist Russia - the Soviet-flag-colored doorway is a striking element. It's an all-too-telling one, too: In imagining the life of Jim Hercules, a black Alabaman living in St. Petersburg in the early 20th century, Currin traces ironies and thematic parallels that are as sharp and tidy as the lines on that door frame.

The neatly arranged subtext, and a methodical, expository approach to storytelling, undermine the persuasiveness of director Jessica Lefkow's "Hercules in Russia." That's a shame, because the play's premise is intriguing. As Robert K. Massie related in his book "Nicholas and Alexandra," Jim Hercules served as an attendant to the imperial family in the years before the Russian Revolution. In Currin's telling, he's a refugee from American racism and race-inspired conflict who finds comfort and security as a loyal member of the St. Petersburg court.

The play takes a stab at illuminating the character's interior life: After our first glimpse of Jim (Ricardo Frederick Evans), wearing a neat black coat and bowler hat and paused inside the red doorway, we learn that he's a smart, reserved, apolitical man who suffers from nightmares and is anxious to forget episodes from his hardscrabble youth. Cautiously chummy with the precocious young Grand Duchess Tatiana (Sarah Ulstrup), daughter to Czar Nicholas II, Jim is curious enough to strike up an acquaintanceship with Lev (Andrew Ferlo), a Jewish revolutionary.

Unfortunately, as the play fleshes out these relationships and evokes the lead-up to revolution, it graphs the tale onto a set of trim moral symmetries. We see Jim gradually connect American racial injustice with the social inequities of czarist Russia. We hear Tatiana talk about reading "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and hear her wonder, in the aftermath of Rasputin's death, "Is it ever right to kill someone?" And a series of clunky flashbacks involving Jim's onetime U.S. sweetheart Sunday (Jasmin Johnson), a passionate idealist, ultimately reduces his experience to an abstract question: Is it moral to refuse to take a political stance?

Surmounting the script's didacticism, several of Lefkow's actors manage to conjure up vibrant characters. Evans's Jim is a little flat: The actor rarely manages to hint at the emotion and ambivalence that presumably roil beneath Jim's diffident mien and aristocratic posture. But Ferlo brings dynamism and scrappy charm to Lev, whom we often see standing on a wooden crate, barking out rabble-rousing sermons. DeJeanette Horne is jauntily charismatic as Jonah Thomas Washington, an African American who tends bar at a Nevsky Prospect taproom. Ulstrup, a student at Woodrow Wilson High School, invests Tatiana with delicacy and intelligence and looks adorable in her gauzy white frock.

And Gordon Adams is highly diverting as the czar's pragmatic, crotchety cousin, Grand Duke Nicholas, who finds Jim a kindred soul, not to mention a useful sounding board for frustration over the czar's incompetence. "Don't give me the family line: I invented the family line!" he sputters at one point, when Jim ventures a politic defense of the monarch's behavior.

The family line, of course, spells doom for Tatiana. Jim's inability - or perhaps unwillingness - to save his young friend casts a wry light on the title "Hercules in Russia," which summons thoughts of the mythological hero. It's just one more strand of the ironic architecture that frames, and ultimately impedes, Currin's story.

'Hercules in Russia' to flex its muscles

By Jessica Goldstein
Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2012

Sixteen years ago, Allyson Currin read a book. Specifically, she read a paragraph. The book, "Nicholas and Alexandra: The Classic Account of the Fall of the Romanov Dynasty" by Robert K. Massie, contained a reference - a fleeting, skim-and-you-miss it shout-out - to Jim Hercules, an African American who left his home in Alabama for St. Petersburg and developed a relationship with the czar's family.

Currin contacted Massie, wanting to know more, and he replied that everything he knew about Jim Hercules was in his book.

"It's a good thing we don't know more about this character," he said to her. "Because now you can make it up."

Currin's play, inspired by the paragraph, is "Hercules in Russia," which will have its world premiere with the Doorway Arts Ensemble.

Although the play occurs in the context of real events, "we're legitimately in historical fiction land," she said. "I invented this Jim for myself. . . . [Even] the name to me always sounded like an alias."

Her Jim Hercules winds up in the czarist court of Nicholas II as Russia is on the verge of revolution. He becomes close with the czar's second-oldest daughter, Tatiana, while realizing that the Romanov dynasty has created in Russia a system eerily familiar to the segregated America he had left behind.

"He takes his life by the reins and tries to make a life for himself outside of where he came from," said Ricardo Evans, who plays Hercules. The Russian Revolution "opens up a floodgate of memories for him."

"Historically, we have no idea why [Hercules] left the U.S.," Currin said. "In my text, it's revealed to be in terms of his personal tragedy. A very large part of his [self-examination] is that he's discovering himself in a new reality that is every bit as horrific as the one he came from.

Hercules "is an epic character in my imagination," she said. " . . . Because he's tossed about by waves of history, but he's a world wanderer and he's a soul wanderer. He's one of those unknowable people."