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Chicago by John Olson

John Malkovich in Lost Land
Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Lost Land
John Malkovich and Yasen Peyankov
It’s ironic ... John Malkovich makes his first appearance on stage at Steppenwolf in nine years and he doesn’t even get the John Malkovich part. That part instead has gone to Steppenwolf’s Yasen Peyankov, who does slimy and duplicitous here as well as I’ve ever seen Malkovich do it. The casting against type of Malkovich, arguably Steppenwolf’s most famous company member (though Gary Sinise could compete for that title as well) is the first of several twists in this new play by Stephen Jeffreys (I Just Stopped By to See the Man) that keep surprising the audience and force us to pay attention even through a few slow spots.

Lost Land is set in Hungary during the days just before the end, and after the end, of World War I and concerns the relationship of ethnic identity and nationalism to land, as well as the relationship of land ownership to personal identity and self determination, told in the highly individual terms of five characters. Malkovich plays Kristof, a widowed former politician and baron of his family’s ancient estate where he, his unmarried sister Ilona (Martha Lavey) and their peasants produce the exquisite dessert wine named for the Tokaj region. Kristof, whom Jeffreys has modeled after an historical figure, is an idealist and believer in land reform who has promised his Hungarian peasants ownership of their own parcel of land from his estate if they will marry outside their ethnicity. His theory is that intermarriage will enlarge and strengthen the Hungarian people, while land ownership will provide the peasants with greater incentive for productivity and will increase the wealth of the region.

Such a topic could be more intellectual than dramatic, but Jeffreys has framed it around an engrossing story dealing with stageworthy emotions of grief and loss, family conflict, idealism vs. opportunism and the need for love and companionship. He’s also created a set of fascinating characters and given them some wickedly funny lines throughout.

The casting of Malkovich gives Kristof an edge that would be easy for other actors to miss. He gives a surprisingly low-keyed performance that reveals the troubled and conflicted layers beneath the surface appearances of a man of his stature. Despite his idealism and egalitarianism, he remains partly “old-fashioned,” and must maintain the respect of his peasants, a challenge made more difficult by his romantic attachment to his maid Anna (Katrina Lenk), who with the foreman of Kristof’s vineyard may become the first couple to enjoy Kristof’s offer of land redistribution. He is presented with the challenge of making good on his promise to the peasants, at the expense of not only a parcel of his land but also a portion of his heart.

Kristof’s strength is matched by the will of his sister who runs the vineyard. Ilona tastes the grapes each day to decide which plots will be harvested and which will wait. She opposes his idealism and plans for land redistribution, but as a woman her only possibility of stopping him is through the battle of wills she can fight using her knowledge of his weaknesses. Martha Lavey gives Ilona a toughness and intelligence that makes her a formidable opponent, as well as a dry delivery that is perfect for lines like Ilona’s drunken observation “what good are men if they don’t amuse you?”

The performer one can’t take one's eyes off, though, even in the august company of Malkovich and Lavey, is Peyankov. He plays the mysterious military officer Miklos, who arrives at the estate to entice Kristof to return to Budapest and a role in the government, but has an agenda much larger than he initially reveals. His Miklos shifts from charm to brute force as he needs and Peyankov is alternately hilarious and terrifying. Malkovich, Lavey and Peyankov masterfully communicate the triangular conflict and shifting alliances among these three.

Only slightly below these three in narrative importance and theatrical presence is Katrina Lenk as the Slovak maid, Anna. Her character, like those of Lavey and Peyankov, adopts alternate demeanors as needed, and has far more personal strength, sensuality and power than one would expect from a young peasant girl. Her suitor, the foreman Tomas, has a less complex character than his castmates, as Tomas is the only one who generally accepts people and circumstances at face value, and he is credibly played by Ian Barford.

The direction by Terry Johnson (The Graduate, Hitchcock Blonde) balances the tension of the characters at a time of momentous change in their lives and their country with the dry and biting wit of Jeffreys’ script. He chooses to keep his actors a bit static and has them keep their backs to the audience for a few longish periods, but he delivers a convincingly naturalistic ensemble performance that takes us on a significant journey in about two hours and fifteen minutes.

The time and place are established with the benefit of costumes designed by Malkovich himself and a set by James Schuette. Schuette’s medieval castle turns from a sense of elegance and an imposing nature to a feeling of decay. The stunning lighting design by Scott Zielinski establishes the transitional times of day in which the first two acts occur ... late afternoon and just before dawn, helping to establish the historical time of the play as one of great change for the world.

Though perhaps not quite as successfully, Lost Land is akin to a piece like Dangerous Liaisons in its ability to take us to a past time or place, but with a sense of immediacy and depiction of certain traits human nature that remain recognizable today. As a piece of writing, it’s a nice lesson in history and philosophy as well as a fun couple of hours at the theater. As a production, it’s a showcase for some world-class performing and design talents.

Lost Land runs through June 5th, 2005 at Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago. Curtain times are Tuesday through Sunday at 7:30 p.m. as well as Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3:00 p.m. and Wednesday matinees on May 18, 25 and June 1, 2005 at 2:00 p.m. There will be no Sunday evening performances on May 22, 29 and June 5, 2005. Many performances are sold out, but there are twenty $20.00 seats sold for each performance on the day of performance, available either by phone (312-335-1650) or at the box office. Standby seats, if available, are sold beginning one hour before curtain. There is a limit of two tickets per person for each offer. Additional information is available by phone or online.


Photo: Michael Brosilow

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-- John Olson



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