Where's the Revolution?

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Do you ever get nervous reuniting with an old friend? Maybe it's someone you fell in love with years ago. You haven't seen them in a while . . . maybe they've changed? Will the spark still be there?

That's how I feel going to see the play Neva at the Kirk Douglas Theater.

I first fell in love with Neva two years ago when it was one of the standouts of the Radar LA festival at RedCat. Set on the early cusp of the Russian revolution, it's a 'tough love' letter to the theater and Anton Chekhov. We're in a rehearsal room with Chekhov's widow, Olga Knipper. She's joined by two young actors who begin trading stories of the theater. One of the actors, appropriately named Masha, keeps speaking of revolution.

Now characters going on about revolution are a staple of Chekhov -- a leitmotif like returning to Moscow. It's the note that's so tough for American productions to hit. Too often these cries for change feel as distant as the cherry orchard being chopped down.

The genius of Neva, written and directed by Chilean Guillermo Calderón, is it captures not only Chekhov's gift for theater but also what's happening outside the theater. We're forced to confront that just beyond the safety of these rehearsal room walls, workers are being killed by the Tsarist regime. At the climax of the play's 90 minutes, Masha begins a tour de force tirade against the emptiness of theater. "How can you set foot on the stage knowing that out on the streets, in the world, people are dying?" She's consumed with how false the theater is. How dare we come to the theater to feel -- when there is work to be done.

It's a glorious paradox: as this actor decries the futility of theater, we, in the audience, discover the theater's power.

So why am I nervous about going to see Neva, a play that blew me away two years ago? Because the play's been translated into English and the Chilean actors recast with Americans. Maybe it says something about me but I can't help but wonder if the magic will translate as well as the words.

Now, as grateful as I am to get a second chance to see it -- the question that sticks with me is: Why not do it in the original Spanish?

This production is actually a co-production between Center Theater Group, South Coast Repertory, and the La Jolla Playhouse. I can imagine a conversation that goes something like, 'well, our audience will never go see a play with that many subtitles,' and if this were a full run on the theater's main stage -- I might agree. But it's playing for one week at each theater -- traveling down the coast from Los Angeles to La Jolla. Hmmm, no one speaks Spanish between LA and San Diego?

There was an essay on HowlRound several weeks ago comparing the American Theater to the Republican Party - 'too old and too white' to go on. Maybe our theaters need to imagine their own revolution.

Neva plays at the Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City through Sunday then moves to South Coast and finally to La Jolla.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Run time: 90 minutes without an intermission

Banner image: (L-R) Ramón de Ocampo, Sue Cremin and Ruth Livier in Neva at the Kirk Douglas Theatre as part of DouglasPlus. Photo: Craig Schwartz