Set in Stay Dog Café, an actual 1911-1915 gathering place for boundary-pushing artists of all stripes, Elizabeth Swados’ piece is as much a play as a musical, with equal heft in both sectors. St. Petersburg, Russia was a hotbed of artistry until the Russian Revolution eliminated free speech, summarily imprisoning and murdering those creating such work. The poets we see are not fictional. Translations by Paul Schmidt give us a glimpse of each as well as collective passions bludgeoned by messianic politics.
Despite dire facts, this is as entertaining, cogent and riveting as a good production of the also dark, Parade. Unflagging energy, individual talent, and wonderful direction makes commitment to cause palpable. One is swept up despite lack of specific knowledge. (I researched later.)
“Welcome to Stray Dog Café…I’m not here to upset you, but to entertain. There’s no revolution here, only poets.” Proprietor Boris Pronin (STARR Busby, whose larger than life personality magnetizes) was “a failed revolutionary, an endless dreamer who spoke or rather choked with delight about what is valuable…” according to artist Sergei Sudeikin. “We are underground!” the company robustly sings. They assemble plain wood tables and chairs in semblance of the venue.
Kate Fuglei (Anna Akhmatova), George Abud (Alexander Blok)
Just as in the original café, visitors are divided into poets and pharmacists (those not belonging to the creative world), the latter pay more. We, the audience, might be either. A bucket is passed for donations. There’s no fourth wall.
“Everything’s betrayed, plundered, sold…why then do we not despair?,” asks Anna Akhmatova (Kate Fuglei, manifesting pride and grace). The poet and muse is pursued by both Boris Pasternak and Alexander Blok (George Abud – apt gravitas and yearning). Blok had written 800 poems to A Beautiful Lady. Prostitutes commonly declared themselves his inspiration. “The golden haired angel of the day/ Will turn into a night fairy/But she too will go away, ringing/When the momentary dream is dreamt.”
Poets each mount the soapbox (a slightly raised wood block). They speak, sing, gesture, leap on tables, collapse. Compelling effect is like a pinball machine. Even those actors without solos are focused in character. Physical performance is as strong as anything audible. The theater hums with energy and inevitability.
Andrew Polec (Sergei Yesenin) and the Company
Sergei Yesenin (Andrew Polec, consumed by intensity), country boy, hooligan, grumbles at closed cafes and daily restrictions. He longs to escape to Paris with lover, Isadora Duncan. “I feel very sad…human individuality is being destroyed; approaching socialism is totally different from the one I was dreaming of…I want to be important.” For lack of ink, Yesenin would write his last poem in blood before hanging himself.
“All here are revelers and whores,” Pronin sings. “The poor people outside are restive, but in here, we’ll be festive.” Paper party hats are passed out. We’re instructed to bark like different kinds of dogs (a cacophonous exorcism) and then “coo” or “caw” like birds. We do both. Poetry and prose are sung to music with traditional, pithy Russian feeling; richly orchestrated, well played.
Henry Stram (Osip Mandelstam)
“I am more alone than the one good eye of a man going steadily blind,” Russian Futurist, Vladimir Mayakovsky proclaims (Djoré Nance, authoritative presence, fine baritone). The poet admired Lenin, yet railed against cultural censorship. (Futurists rejected the past, celebrating speed, machinery, violence, youth and industry.) He would commit suicide. Behind him Velimir Khlebnikov (Tom Nelis, credibly pixilated) dons red glassine specs and boogies. Conscripted, Khlebnikov died of gangrene in a village far from St. Petersburg. “Drums really bring me a sense of tranquility,” he wrote.
There’s a lack of inhibition within the safe confines of the café. Poets offer recognition; sing back-up. They clap, march and stomp, driving lyrics without interfering. Movement is sometimes synchronized but even separate, all of a piece. The company strips down and changes into uniform, gray jumpsuits as the Great October Revolution sweeps over Russia. “We’re all members of the proletariat now! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!” (The social class of wage-earners whose only possession of value is their labor power.)
Tom Nelis (Velimir Khlebnikov), Djoré Nance (Vladimir Mayakovsky)
“There will be no revolution in St. Petersburg,” Pronin declares, “because Nicolas the bloody will execute us all.” “We want our freedom back- ack- ack- ack,” the poets sing standing united. Mayakovsky became a poet for the Revolution. Alexander Blok passed away from heart failure due to malnutrition. “There was nothing for him to breathe,” Akhmatova remarked.
As each poet dies, he or she takes a seat at a long table flopping forward, head flat, arm extended, intermittently responding when rallied. We watch the accumulation, feel inevitability. “He will make us free in his own good time,” the company sings of Stalin. “He loves poetry and cabaret.”
“I’m still alive!” Marina Tsvetaeva (Ashley Pérez Flanagan, a bright light, more an innocent depiction). The poet fled living through tragedy and poverty in several cities outside Russia: “Homes reach the stars, the sky’s below/The land in smoke to it is near./Inside the big and happy Paris/Remains the secretive despair.” Upon return, her husband and child were arrested. He was executed. She committed suicide.
STARR Busby (Boris Pronin) and the Company
“We were most fortunate men to have seen Stalin,” Osip Mandelstam says. (Henry Stram, vibrates with outrage and gravitas.) “In every pause of conversation/We think of those who govern the nation…He tossed his orders like horseshoes over Kremlin walls,” the poet wrote. Mandelstam was exiled several times before dying in a “corrective labor camp” in the Soviet Far East. “We died but art remained.” “Write it town! Write it down!” the company shouts.
The Beautiful Lady is brilliantly directed by Ann Bogart whose comprehension of Swados’ intentions as well as the soul and dynamism of situation are like channeling. Movement supervisor- Miki Orihara.
Gabriel Berry’s costumes are imaginative, bohemian- just right. Minimalist scenic design by Andromache Chalfant works splendidly as does Brian H. Scott’s evocative lighting.
Ensemble: Paula Gaudier, Jacob Louchheim, RED, Maya Sharpe
Elizabeth Swados (1951-2016) was long associated with La Mama Experimental Theatre and its founder Ellen Stewart in whose namesake space this production blooms. Drawing from folk and world music, integrating sound, rhythm and movement, the multifaceted artist was inspired to explore racism, violence, and mental illness. The Beautiful Lady was written in 1984. This is its debut staging.
Vladimir Lenin ousted the Russian monarchy, ended the Russian Empire in 1917, and lead the October Revolution. Joseph Stalin’s power began in 1922 when he became secretary general of the Communist Party’s Central Committee—a position he held until his death in 1953.
Boris Pronin was an actor, director and secretary to Stanislavsky at the Moscow Art Theater School. He established Stray Dog Café as a gathering place for artists. Pronin died of a heart attack living above a second café enterprise. Anna Akhmatova was successful, acknowledged by Mother Russia and shortlisted for the 1965 Nobel Prize. She married several times and died of a heart attack at 76.
Through May 28, 2023
Photos by Steven Pisano
Opening: Background- George Abud (Alexander Blok) and Kate Fuglei (Anna Akhmatova) Foreground- STARR Busby (Boris Pronin)
La Mama presents
The Beautiful Lady
Music and Lyrics by Elizabeth Swados
Original Book by Elizabeth Swados and Paul Schmidt
Book Adapted by Jocelyn Clarke
Orchestrations by Kris Kukul
Translations by Paul Schmidt
Directed by Anne Bogart
Ellen Stewart Theatre
66 East 4th Street