Stage Left: Neva savagely skewers theatre

Theatre Inconnu scores with Chilean satire

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Working out of a wee theatre in Fernwood, Theatre Inconnu has forged a reputation for staging adventuresome theatre. Past successes include Joshua Harmon's Bad Jews, Shock Headed Peter and The Collected Works of Billy the Kid by Michael Ondaatje.

Inconnu's latest venture, Neva, is yet another bold choice well worth checking out. The 90-minute (with intermission) play by Chilean playwright Guilliermo Calderon is a savage satire that can be viewed as a back-handed love letter to theatre. Well acted — it stars the ever-watchable Melissa Blank — this three-hander is a rollicking, highly original romp that sizzles with the audacity of such playwrights as Martin McDonagh or Steven Berkoff.

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The play is set in a rehearsal theatre in St. Petersburg in 1905. Three actors have assembled to rehearse Chekhov's Cherry Orchard. They include Olga Knipper (Blank), an actress and Chekhov's widow (in the play he has recently died). There is also Aleko (Nicholas Guerrerio), an actor from a rich family, and Masha (Rosemary Jeffery), an actress who is in awe of Knipper's status a a celebrated Russian performer.

Knipper, dressed in a long skirt and ruffled 19th-century blouse, launches the play with a lengthy monologue revealing both her narcissism and self-doubts as a actress. Do audiences come merely to see her fail? She ponticifates neurotically about her nerves, her desire for love and praise. She zings other actors, saying of one: "Your back expressed more dramatic subtlety than your face." Knipper frets she's become a mere husk, declaring "I do no feel any more. I have became coarse." It's over-the-top funny — simultaneously outrageous and yet radiating the tang of authenticity.

In order to re-prime her artistic pump, Knipper has her pals join her in re-enacting her final moments at Chekov's deathbed. She entreats Aleko to recreate her late husband's dying delirium, then instructs her to try again, amping up the delirium further. Meanwhile, Masha's efforts displease the grand dame of Russian theatre -- she barks: "Do you have bronchitis?... You sound like an accordion!"

It's all fun and games for a while (especially for one guy at the back of the theatre Friday night who laughed at almost every line). But as it happens, this rehearsal is taking place on Bloody Sunday, the day when when the Imperial Guard infamously slaughtered working-class demonstrators in St. Petersburg. As the play concludes, Masha — in a fiery speech dispatched by Jeffery with admirable passion — denounces the aristocratic classes and defends the right of peasants to rise up against the rich.

"You disgust me!" says Masha — a declaration that seems aimed at both the decadent rich and the self-obsessed theatre world.

Inconnu founder Clayton Jevne's clear-headed direction shows a sure-footed understanding and empathy for the material. Each of these well-rehearsed actors had fine moments on a bare-bones stage (essentially a black box with a bench, a chair and a coat rack). Some may find Masha's climatic call-to-arms pairs uneasily with the skewering of the theatre world. Most will find this play — and production — to be invigorating, provocative and absolutely hilarious.

Neva continues at Theatre Inconnu to March 3.

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