Photo (above): Allan Morgan, Colleen Wheeler and Celine Stubel in My Chernobyl [https://www.gatewaytheatre.com/whatsons1.html]
My Chernobyl continues at the Belfry Studio Theatre until April 5th. Tickets are available at 385-6815.
This show is the final one in the Belfry's Festival season and features both Victoria and Vancouver theatre artists. What can you tell us about it?
Vancouver-based playwright Aaron Bushkowsky has been writing plays for over twenty years that have been produced by many Vancouver theatre companies as well as at the Belfry. This recent play was just produced at Richmond's Gateway Theatre before transferring here and features three very well known Vancouver actors working alongside Victoria's Jacob Richmond, Celine Stubel and director Britt Small. The play is a dark comedy about a somewhat down-and-out Canadian theatre artist (perhaps the playwright himself?), played convincingly by Andrew McNee, who is returning for a visit to his ancestral homeland of Belarus after his father's death. What he encounters there is a village close to the site of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster where people's lives have been devastated economically, environmentally, emotionally and physically. The naïve Canadian is set upon by family members and strangers alike, who see him only as a privileged Westerner they can take advantage of by fleecing him of every last penny. This makes for a very original but rather odd setting for a comedy, as we are supposed to laugh at the backwardness and poverty of these people (never mind the endless plague of radiation-caused cancers and other diseases they have suffered) as they walk all over the rather spineless and far too nice David. However, we do laugh, even to our surprise, as Bushkowsky has the gift of creating likable and believable characters even in the most unlikely of circumstances.
2. So what is it about these characters that makes them so likable?
These are very poor people who live a hardscrabble existence and are tough as nails...not one of them is anybody's fool. The first two Belorussians we meet are Yuri, a jovial hard-drinking roadside potato seller and Katrina, a sourpuss hard-smoking mechanic. As played by Allan Morgan and Colleen Wheeler (two of my favorite Vancouver actors), they almost become versions of the clowns in Beckett's Waiting for Godot, sitting in the blasted countryside waiting for the end of the world. But their self-awareness and grudging mutual admiration makes them hard to resist, and Morgan and Wheeler pull out all the comedic stops to portray them with great physicality and assuredness. Jacob Richmond plays a government bureaucrat who confirms all our stereotypes of the insanity of Russian-style bureaucracy and then surprises us by turning out to be a decent fellow who is in love with David's second (or is it third?) cousin Natasha, played by Celine Stubel. It is this final character who totally steals the show; as played by Stubel in a stellar breakout performance, Natasha is by turns manipulative, honest, contemptible and heartbreaking...she is also very, very funny. As she tries to convince her distant cousin to marry her so as to allow her to get into Canada, we see her dishonesty but understand her motives; she is a cancer survivor who has also lost a young child to the disease, so why wouldn't she do anything in her power to escape?
3. And what happens to David in the middle of all of these people...does he continue to let them walk all over him?
Thankfully, no. David is a bit too Canadian even for a Canadian audience and finally, late in the play, he locates his spine and lets everyone around him have it in a welcome blast of anger. The play feels a bit unresolved at the end right now, with an false-seeming death thrown in and a kind of anti-climactic reconciliation. Bushkowsky would do well to think through where the play goes in the second act...tragicomedy is a challenging dramatic genre and I think the play could let us into these characters' histories and struggles with a bit more focus and commitment than the fairly light approach we see now.
4. What about the direction and design of the show?
Britt Small directs the play with great assurance and pulls an outstanding performance out of Stubel and strong work from the rest of the cast. She creates a nice transition motif using Russian music and dance that seems suited to the play. Local designer Janis Ward gives us a simple outdoor set with a real dirt floor, a rusted sewer pipe and truck tires and assorted broken down folding chairs, all placed against an impressionistic backdrop of a changing sky. Her costumes are very effective, especially Natasha's ensembles that try to be stylish but look kind of dated and sad (despite her obvious sexual appeal). The production garnered rave reviews in its recent run in Richmond, and I am happy to report that this is a show with lots of appeal, despite my belief that it could use another round of rewrites.