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San Francisco by Richard Connema

The Death Of Meyerhold
is a Brilliant Production

Also see Richard's reviews of The Last Schwartz and Dreamgirls

The Shotgun Players company is currently presenting the world premiere of Mark Jackson's brilliant re-creation of the The Death of Meyerhold. Mr. Jackson has also directed this dazzling three hour production that is worthy of Off Broadway attention. This is an intelligent and clever play performed by a cast of talented actors. The drama contains comedy, dance and magnificent music by leading Soviet composers Shostakovich, Knipper and Soloviyov-Sedoy. Unfortunately, the play closes this weekend at the Julia Morgan Theater for the Arts in Berkeley.

Vsevolod Meyerhold is not that well known to the general theater-going public, but he and Stanislavski believed in psychological realism and method acting. Although Stanislavski is better known to theater actors, Meyerhold's influence on modern acting is just as important. He created what is called "biomechanics" in the school of theater. Meyerhold's life was meaningful in both Czarist and Soviet Russia from 1898 to his execution by Comrade Stalin in 1940. This three act presentation is a riveting drama of his life, theatrical modus operandi, and politics in that turbulent era of Russian history.

The Shotgun Players took a big risk in presenting this large cast, world premiere production, and they have completely validated themselves in presenting The Death of Meyerhold. It is one of the best plays on our local stages in years and it deserves to play in other cities and hopefully in New York, with a little trimming.

Each of the three acts is a different time period: act one covers 1898 - 1917; act two, 1919 - 1928; and act three, 1930 - 1940. I don't always find biographical plays compelling, but this production goes so smoothly that it is a journey that engrossed me completely. The playwright and director do not allow the audience to get bored with political jargon and long dissertations of Russian politics of this period. They intersperse scenes with dance, comedy, short sentences, quick scenes and strong dramatic situations. The cast members quickly change into many different characters without any problems. The timing is impeccable.

Director Mark Jackson lets us see Meyerhold (Cassidy Brown) as a person who is headstrong and a difficult man to deal with. Meyerhold is willfully blind, letting Russia's greatest actress Maria Babanova (Beth Wilmurt) leave his theater in favor of giving leading roles to his less talented wife (Isabelle Ortega). It reminded me of Orson Wells as Kane, attempting to have his little talented wife sing opera.

The Death of Meyerhold has many wonderful scenes, including one that takes place in New York during the 1930s when Clifford Odets was one of America's leading playwrights. Mr. Odets has just received accolades for Waiting for Lefty and a group of American theater intellectuals are at a restaurant in New York flirting with the Communist way of life. The group includes Stella Adler and Eliza Kazan among other actors/writers showing the American intellectuals' idealization of the Soviet Union, while there is a bread line of Russian citizens in Moscow hoping for one loaf of bread, only to be turned away since there is none.

The Death of MeyerholdEveryone in this cast is brilliant. Cassidy Brown, who has played many roles at the Willows Theatre, is penetrating as Vsevolod Emilievich Meyerhold. He gives a mesmeric performance as the bullheaded autocratic Russian playwright who falls from favor during the Stalin period. Brown is deeply engaged in the role and can be ominous, remote, affectionate and tyrannical. It is a tour de force of acting.

Also outstanding is Richard James Louis as Stanislavski, whom we encounter several times over the forty year period. His voice is wonderful, with the lucid tones of a great actor. He ages beautifully through out the production. His scene as a young man directing a rehearsal of Chekhov's The Seagull in 1898 is superb. His last scene, as he sits with trembling hands conversing with Meyerhold, is a perfect gem of great acting.

Beth Wilmurt takes on several roles, including the great Russian actress Maria Babanova and Stella Adler. She does a one minute Hamlet without speaking at an audition that must be seen to believed. The silent solo piece tells everything you want to know about the Bard's play; it is worth of the price of admission just to see this spot. Also, her performance as Maria is wonderful.

Isabella Ortega as Meyerhold's wife is outstanding, especially when her husband is taken away for crimes against the state. Clive Worsley as the poet Mayakovsky and Benjamin Privitt as a lead actor are both exceptional in their roles. Privitt is able to change from character to character with the ease of a person who has studied Stanislavski. Kevin Clarke is the extremely nervous Shostakovich, almost a caricature of the great Russian composer. It is a wonderful if extreme performance of the man. (This composer was always on the outs with Stalin and always came back into the fold of writing Soviet music after being publicly chastised.)

Patrick Dooley, artistic director of the Shotgun, took the roles of Illinsky, Harold Clurman and ensemble along with Dave Maier who plays several characters - both are first-rate in their roles. Maier's role as a First Prisoner in a White Russian camp is beautifully portrayed. Reid Davis, playing varying parts including a sickly Chekhov, is engaging in all of his roles. Young Natalie Grant-Villegas is very good as an awaking American Girl and a Paperboy yelling out news to set the passage of time.

Meyerhold's sound design by Jake Rodriguez is a wonderful part of the production. The waltz from Shostakovich Ballet Suite No. 1 (the theme was used in the film Eyes Wide Shut) is a work of art with the cast doing a lovely waltz to the music. Lighting by Robert Ted Anderson is very effective with harshly dramatic effects.

The Death of Meyerhold is a remarkable achievement for this company. It closes on January 25 at the Julia Morgan Theatre, 2640 College Ave, Berkeley. You might be lucky enough to get a seat before it closes. For tickets call 510-704-8210 or visit www.shotgunplayers.org.


Photo: Mark Jackson


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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