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'Black Milk': A Scalding View of Russia's Hungry Society

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 11, 2005; Page C01

At last, Studio Theatre's Slavic gambit bears luscious fruit. The company's decision to devote virtually an entire season to Russian drama pays off searingly with "Black Milk," Vassily Sigarev's scathing, funny and ultimately despairing play about a hapless nation trying to nurse itself to health on a steady diet of toxins.

Sigarev is a kindred spirit to Joe Orton and Martin McDonagh, satirists of the crueler chambers of the heart. His humor, however, has a more political tinge; it is in the context of the blistering social rifts of the post-Soviet era -- between rich and poor, young and old, bourgeois Muscovites and threadbare country folk -- that Sigarev's comic vision finds its bite. In a freewheeling cynical style, he examines those divisions and considers the implications for Russia's future. The forecast is not promising.

June Hansen plays an old woman who may be trying to out-con Matthew Montelongo's con man in "Black Milk." (Scott Suchman - Studio Theatre)

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Out of his pessimism, the playwright fashions compelling metaphors. "Black Milk" is set in a train station in some hardscrabble Russian village or other, where a boorish, predatory pair of rip-off artists played by Matthew Montelongo and Holly Twyford are toting up the take from their latest scam: selling toasters at exorbitant markups to peasants who haven't a clue how to use them. Montelongo's Lyovchik and Twyford's Shura may be from the city, but they're more backward and coarse than the hicks they sucker. He's violence-prone, she's mindlessly anti-Semitic, and both are repulsively callous about the baby growing in Shura's belly, so indifferent to its survival that they see nothing wrong with Shura's smoking even after her water breaks.

Lyovchik and Shura are standard-bearers of a rapacious Russian generation whose role models are not sloganeering revolutionaries but oligarchs. To them, "market economy" means lying and finagling and stealing whatever's not nailed down. There is an existential dimension to the sale of useless appliances to customers who can't afford them, a sense that a country's sorry fate is further sealed with each transaction. "It's not like there's a shortage of provincial holes like this one," snarls Twyford's Shura, perched on a plastic seat in set designer Michael Philippi's satisfyingly grim and grimy waiting room.

Shura's attitude, "Black Milk" suggests, rages in Russia like an opportunistic virus; this idea, in fact, is reinforced in the play's recurring images of poisons coursing through the country's bloodstream, from the wholesale genetic damage wreaked by Chernobyl to the heavy doses of tar and nicotine that have contaminated Shura's breast milk.

Montelongo and Twyford, featured together in Studio's harrowing "Far Away" last season, deliver physically adept, psychologically intertwined performances under Serge Seiden's astute direction. Twyford is often at her best playing women with hard shells who are forced to reveal the depth of the insecurity -- or malice -- that lies beneath. Shura, called "Shorty" by her flimflamming partner (a grandly swaggering Montelongo, fussing amusingly with his Mohawk haircut), affords her one of her best roles in some time. In Shura's early throes of labor, Twyford shows a gift for slapstick, and she's particularly powerful in the revelatory second act, when motherhood compels Shura to see her nomadic existence and shameless carpetbagging in a new light.

Sigarev illuminates the townspeople with only a degree or two less harshness. The ticket clerk (Anne Stone), venal and lazy, sees the local drunk (Bob Barr) solely as a receptacle for her questionable bootleg vodka; the other residents are dunderheads who buy toasters even though they eat only rolls. In one of the evening's best interludes, a haggard-looking old woman (the wonderful June Hansen), decked out like a servant from "The Cherry Orchard," pursues the couple in a vain effort to return her toaster. The man she's been living with (whose last name she doesn't seem to know) has died, and she needs the money to bury him. Or so she says. Hansen's frantic darting eyes are like windows on an exhausted population bewildered by the disintegration of the system to which they were accustomed.

The lacerating farce of Act 1 has only a few dry spots; Sasha Dugdale's translation is more than serviceable, and if some of the laugh lines are not quite as polished as they might be, others exude day-of freshness. (The command "Back to your yurts!" is a funny comeback indeed.) The tone of the play shifts enormously, but convincingly, in Act 2; it takes place after Shura has had the baby and discovers a desire to take care of someone other than herself. An audience's ability to believe in her possible metamorphosis is aided greatly by Elizabeth Stripe's warm, consoling portrayal of a woman from the village who teaches Shura a thing or two about maternal love. And it is a lingering sense of ambivalence in Twyford's performance that leaves us guessing until the last anguished moments whether there's any hope for Shura and her offspring.

Seiden's designers are inspired collaborators. Alex Jaeger's costumes are ripely comic without lapsing into caricature; Gil Thompson devises an effective soundscape; and Philippi's set design is a terrific backdrop for the play's final, unsettling visual effect.

If the turmoil of modern Russia holds any fascination for you, "Black Milk" will unfold like an uncommonly absorbing page of contemporary history. For others, this expertly turned-out production will serve as an intriguing exposure to a young dramatist's exotic vitality. Either way, it speaks well of Studio's restlessness. In bringing this work to an American stage for the first time, the company is committing a highly entertaining act of enlightenment.

Black Milk, by Vassily Sigarev, translated by Sasha Dugdale. Directed by Serge Seiden. Sets and lighting, Michael Philippi; costumes, Alex Jaeger; sound, Gil Thompson. With Bob Barr, Tobin Atkinson, Marynell Hinton, Morgan Peter Brown, Jeff Wisniewski, Tina Renay Fulp, Carol Arthur. Approximately 1 hour 45 minutes. Through Feb. 13 at Studio Theatre, 14th and P streets NW. Call 202-332-3300 or visit www.studiotheatre.org.

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