A single light, a chair, and three actors are on a raised stage. This minimalism belongs to Chilean director and playwright Guillermo Calderón's Neva, currently playing at The Public Theater. During this 90-minute show, translated from the Spanish by Andrea Thome, three actors play with literal and psychological light and shadow. The result is a well-staged show that asks deep questions about the connections between the world of the theatre and the potentially violent reality outside of it.
Neva is a member of a very specific subgenre of plays that involves actors playing actors going in and out of character. Sound confusing? Perhaps, but in a piece like this, the blurry boundaries between what is "acting" and what is "real" help define the psychological truth of the play. In this piece, we see Olga Knipper -- an actress who you most likely know due to the fact that she was married to Anton Chekhov -- deal with two other actors, Masha and Aleko as they wait for the other actors to arrive for a rehearsal. It is six months since Chekhov died and outside of the theatre, revolution is stirring in Russia.
Calderon chooses not to show the violence outside, but rather the violence within. Like another recent play referencing Chekhov, Christopher Durang's Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Neva has a way of both mocking Chekhov's style while mimicking it. The characters remind us of stereotypical Chekhov characters while their occasional moments of crude language and action play with our assumptions.
Yet we are not watching a Chekhov play. We are watching a contemporary Chilean play that has been translated into English. The play is aware of this remove, and because of this, it accomplishes that age-old trick of using another cultural context to talk about a contemporary problem. As the characters argue about what kinds of experiences are good fodder for acting, whether or not theatre will be around in 100 years (the play is set in 1905), or if it even should be around when there is war and class struggle, their words resonate with us.
The three actors, Bianca Amato (Olga), Quincy Tyler Bernstine (Masha) and Luke Robertson (Aleko), do a very strong job with a play that relies on their actions and words alone. Though the two women especially had some odd breathing patterns, which could sound like vocal tics, I was still with them the whole time. This piece is not about spectacle, but rather character, and because of this its success rests entirely on these three performers. I was engaged from beginning to end, and they captured my attention aurally even through moments staged in pure darkness. I also enjoyed the writing (and therefore the translation) both in terms of dialogue and the two long monologues that bookend the piece.
This show is obviously not for everyone. If you are looking for an action-packed, high thrills night, then this isn't for you. However, if you want to see psychological warfare, some Chekhov and acting jokes, and some well-written existential pondering, then Neva is right up your alley. I thoroughly enjoyed the piece and I look forward to seeing more work from Calderon in the future. Take a chance on this piece, and remember to never say never.