The year is 1905. Anti-Czarist feelings have reached a fever pitch. The hungry and restless Russian working class are rioting. Amid the chaos, some rag-tag characters must negotiate personal ethics and conflicting allegiance within a reforming society. This is George F. Walker’s Orphans for the Czar, presented by Crow’s Theatre.
Loosely based on Maxim Gorky’s The Life of A Useless Man, the story is set in St. Petersburg and a nearby village. The play opens just before the Bloody Sunday massacre and skids out into the aftermath.
Vasley (Paolo Santalucia), an orphan, is resigned to the relentless drudgery of his destitute position, he mopes around and irritates those around him. In the role, Santalucia is infinitely likable. His passive presence feels deliberately cartoonish against the backdrop of this bloody history. His sudden, calculated display of aggression towards the end is, by contrast, all the more striking.
When his cynical ramblings unsettle the blind and naive Rayisha (Shayla Brown), his exasperated uncle Piotr (Eric Peterson) sends him to live with a twin relative in St. Petersburg. Their actual relation is vague and a point of some amusing contention.
In a wildly colourful performance, Peterson also portrays Piotr’s lecherous and irascible counterpart. The spectacle of this frail and cantankerous tyrant makes for some captivating comedy. Vasley knows him only as “Master,” accepting room and board (his bed is quite literally bare floor boards) in exchange for menial chores. In addition to a variety of considerably more unsavoury tasks, he maintains his bookshop, which offers dangerous texts to inform and inspire those with a revolutionary spirit.
Two such souls arrive in the form of Olga (Michelle Mohammed) and her sister Maya (Shauna Thompson). Vasley befriends these sophisticated, feisty young women. They, in turn, find his ill-used intelligence and penchant for self-deprecation endearing.
Just as their revolutionary movements are revealed to him, Vasley is co-opted by a Czarist agent, Makarov (Patrick McManus) and his goon, Sasha (Kyle Gatehouse), to spy on his new friends. As Vasley’s childhood bully, Yakov (Christopher Allen), arrives in St. Petersburg with Rayisha on his back, tensions come to a head and violence erupts in the streets around them.
Affectionately riffing on their familiar tropes, Walker invokes the Russian classics—capturing their humour, pathos and biting social commentary. There are a few fourth wall breaks through which Walker not-so-subtly calls on us to recognize our own dire situation in the drama unfolding here.
I was particularly drawn to McManus’ magnetic presence as the pragmatic Makarov. Radiating wit and compassion, his warmth feels authentic, but you’re always aware of the authoritarian, opportunistic force he represents. Though we never see him engage in violence, we sense his ability, if called upon, to be brutal.
Lorenzo Savoini’s set is austere and oppressive. Crudely white-washed boards make up the stage floor, looming back wall, and a long, precarious set of steps that unites them. It is an evocatively bleak canvas for these characters. Draped in the tattered remains of once elegant clothes, costume designer Ming Wong affords these people a pathetic, threadbare dignity.
As the action unfolds, stacks of books are knocked from tables and scattered about, the mess of them resonates as a physical manifestation of internal and societal upheaval.
Director Tanja Jacobs production conjures consistently striking imagery rife with expressive textures. The stylized aesthetic provides a storybook quality to the characters and their world, though the visceral human truth of it all is never diluted.
Orphans for the Czar is hilarious, poignant, deeply compelling theatre that feels iconic and lingers in the imagination.