Bad Russian techno music issues forth from a cheap radio. Weak sunlight straggles through the thick smears of dust on the cracked glass of the doorway. The floor of this abandoned train station is filthy, littered with crumpled newspapers and other, unidentifiable debris. A wood-burning stove wheezes quietly in a corner as dustings of plaster stream trickle from the ceiling. This decrepit set is both the first and last image presented to the audience at the Studio Theatre’s production of Black Milk.
While neither the set nor the phrase “black milk” are aesthetically pleasing, new Russian playwright Vassily Sigarev creates a memorable piece from this rather disgusting metaphor. Yes, the show is Russian. And yes, it is mildly depressing. But this darkly comic tale has moments of touching simplicity and heartbreaking humor. Shuna (Holly Twyford) and Lyovchik (Matthew Montelongo), a young couple from Moscow, come to the countryside to fleece the locals by charging exorbitant sums for Malaysian toasters. They usually flee these “provincial holes,” as Shuna calls them, before anyone is the wiser, but are stuck waiting at this remote train station with a ticket seller (Anne Stone) best known for her wicked homebrewed vodka. When locals assemble to demand their rubles back from the fast-talking hustlers, a shouting match ensues and one inebriated Communist fetches his shotgun, shocking Shuna into an early labor.
Twyford, last seen in the Folger Theatre’s production of Two Gentlemen of Verona, is obscenely pregnant in the first act, her prominent belly proving a startling contrast to the venom with which she delivers her lines. This huge attitude from this tiny woman becomes all the more apparent during the second act, when after the birth of her daughter, she undergoes a dramatic spiritual transformation. Twford’s pixielike features flicker with conflicting emotions as she struggles to explain to her unfeeling husband, Lyovchik, what she has experienced.
As Lyovchik, Montelongo is brutally intense, at one point hissing to a widower asking for her money back, “What difference do those 200 rubles mean to you? You’ll be dead soon.” His acting is most truthful during various verbal conflicts with his wife and the locals. During the faster-paced, more piercing second act, he is coldly calculating in his dealings with his wife. While Shuna changes dramatically after the birth of her first child, Lyovchik simply becomes more exasperated and frighteningly angry with Shuna.
Director Serge Seiden thoroughly develops the couple’s relationship, complete with a code of secret signals and verbal lances hurled back and forth with breakneck speed, amd occasionally sinking into soft flesh. The couple and the locals illustrate the stark contrast between the urban Moscow and the rural Russian countryside, as well as serious conflicts in modern Russia. Many older Russians live in these small towns and know not how to fend for themselves, blaming the government for their current situation. The ticket seller explains their predicament: “What does the state do? The state turns its ass on them.” These former Communists are helpless, left to slowly wither away, “dying out once and for all,” as Shuna sneers.
The interactions between the con-artists and the communists creates a dynamic that allows for both honesty and deceit. This Russian play, with a plot as dark as its title, shines with glimmers of humor.
Black Milk, at The Studio Theatre’s Mead Theatre, will run until Feb. 13. Tickets are $35-48, with student rush tickets available one-half hour before curtain. Go to www.studiotheatre.org for show times.