With no prior exposure to Ostrovsky (let alone any prior productions of this particular play), one can only judge this rendition on its merits as entertainment rather than make comparison to more traditional or successful interpretations of the material. Thus, it is purely on the level of asking “is this entertaining?” that the unfortunate response must be “not especially”.
Indeed, this is a good example of a theatre production being less than the sum of its parts. There are aspects of the show that are quite good. The actual narrative is an amusing social satire concerning a slickly manipulative social climber ingratiating himself with all and sundry in the pompous upper classes, the direction contains various interesting techniques, the costuming is excellent, and the cast on the whole is quite strong. Yet, for all this, the actual end result was disconcertingly tepid, at times downright boring and, for a comedy, did not elicit all that many laughs.
Which is a shame. Compared to the unfettered hilarity of Gogol’s plays with vaguely similar plots, this piece came across as altogether rather creaky, leading one to suspect that a more modern translation might have been in order (the programme describes this as “a new version” based on a 1924 translation), especially given the amount of development that apparently went into this production.
James McCaughey’s imaginative direction tried but largely failed to breathe some new life into the piece, with its unconventional method of staging some of the action in triplicate, that is, with many of the duologue scenes being played by three different pairs of actors simultaneously, i.e. three actors apiece portraying the same character at once with staggered dialogue and similar but deliberately unsynchronised actions. The effect is actually less confusing than it sounds, and although reportedly motivated as a response to Ostrovsky’s own experimentation with theatrical conventions, ultimately one couldn’t help but feel that it was not actually adding much to the performance other than a curious theatrical flourish.
The cast had neither any weak links nor particular standouts, although Stephen Costan was rather amusing as Mamaev the uncle (in this case the only actor to play the part) and also quite funny in a brief segment as one of several in the ensemble to play Turusina the wealthy widow, thus rendered momentarily bearded. Also worthy of mention (for good or ill) is Ben Pfeiffer as the primary portrayer of Glumov, the crafty young man climbing the social ladder. An extremely energetic and physical performance taking on almost circus-like elements at times (never has so much gesticulation been seen outside of actual sign-language), Pfeiffer’s very stylised portrayal of the character walked the razor’s edge between intriguing and annoying, but was at any rate rarely tedious.
If you are a real theatre afficionado or academic, or have a particular interest in the Russian theatre, then this production will at the very least provide you with a rare chance to see Ostrovsky’s work actually staged. However, for the more casual theatergoer simply looking for a diverting comedy, this is probably not your best bet for a good chuckle.
Gasworks Arts Park presents
The Scoundrel That You Need
by Alexandr Ostrovsky
Venue: Gasworks Theatre, corner Graham and Pickles Sts, Albert Park
Dates/Times: May 7 to 24, Tuesday to Saturday @ 7.30pm
Bookings: 9699 3253 OR online at www.gasworks.org.au