MADISON, NJ – Yet another Russian-flavored play has come to The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, thanks to artistic director Bonnie Monte.
“Tovarich,” by Jacques Deval and adopted from the French by Robert E. Sherwood, is part farce, part comedy, part romance and part drama. Take your pick. It’s all fascinating, especially the relevance of oil as an investment and the political transactions that are afoot.
Written in 1925, the play was presumably a favorite of Adolf Hitler, who saw it three times after the ending had been slightly twisted. He was also assured that the author was suitably Aryan, according to an anthology introduction by John Anderson. The play has been described as “a pretty lesson in tolerance” and Der Fuehrer was delighted with it. In the Nazi version, a scene involving the transfer of money from the Czar’s regime to the Soviet Commissar was changed to the prince saying, “You may take these so-and-so million rubles: and you may take this (striking Gorotchenko in the face) from me.”
Audiences at the time loved the contrast of the Grand Duchess and her Consort serving as maid and butler to the Dupont family at their home in Paris. We learn in the course of the play that “Tovarich” means “comrade.”
As one would expect at a Shakespeare Theatre production, the cast is sublime. Carly Street is the ravishing Grand Duchess Tatiana, with her flaming red hair and insouciant manner. Her husband, Prince Mikail, adores her. Jon Barker blends just the right mix of lover and patriot to Russia. They are both, in fact, totally dedicated to the czar’s regime. But they are vulnerable to the French banker, Chauffourier-Dubieff, played with sly conviction by Colin McPhillamy. He is accompanied by Count Feodor Brekenski (John Greenbaum) during a visit to the couple’s hotel room. Much as they try to persuade the prince to relinquish the czar’s money in favor of French francs, he resists.
When the couple realize, under pressure, that they must find another place, they stumble across an ad for a butler and maid at the Dupont’s’ home. They are fascinated by the thought of Sundays off, a room of their own and meals included.
It seems Fernande Dupont (Alison Weller) and Charles Dupont (Matt Sullivan) have had bad luck finding a couple who are both congenial and competent. They are delighted with the regal manners of the supposed servants. Act I shifts from the couple’s poor prospects to a hilarious scene in the Dupont’s drawing room. Sullivan, in a brilliant performance reminiscent of John Cleese in his Monty Python days, gradually sheds his somewhat pompous attitude. Mikail not only helps him find his lost shoe, but cures his headache as well. (Apparently, it’s straight vodka.)
A later scene has Mikail and Tatiana (now referred to as Michael and Tina) engaged with the Dupont offspring, Georges and Helene. Ordinarily spoiled, self-centered teenagers, they fall under the spell of the new servants. Mikail helps Georges with his fencing technique in a very funny scene, choreographed with precision by Rick Sordelet. As Monte said in a talk-back, this is a different technique from combat, with exacting rules and etiquette.
By Act II, the plot has turned serious again, as money matters rise to the fore. A dinner party reveals the true identity of the maid and butler when they are recognized by Madam Van Hemert (Mary Dierson). But even with the deception, the couple has won over the family and their cook, Louise (Christy Richardson.) When they are told they’ll be fired, she suggests they join a union. Anthony Cochrane as Commissar Gorotchenko pursues the couple into the kitchen to convince them that turning the czar’s money over to him will ensure it goes to the starving Russians. Cochrane has just the right combination of venom and charm to make him a potential theat.
Of course, we never know if this determination to protect rubles is actually true. “It’s a fairy tale,” Monte said, but added, “I fell in love with this play. It’s a roller coaster ride.” She sees her mission as bringing plays rarely performed to the Shakespeare Theatre stage, introducing audiences to a totally new experience. She has said that plays such as “Tovarich” fell out of favor in the 1950’s and 60’s, when the avant-garde movement and ‘angry young men’ plays rose to prominence. But with the passage of time, she said, the play has acquired import and substance.
“Tovarich” will delight and challenge you. The clever set design by Brittany Vasta brought applause with its intricate scene changes from an atelier to a formal drawing room to a Parisian kitchen. Paul Canada’s costumes deftly merge Russian ensembles with French fashion and lighting by Steven Rosen embellishes the shadings of emotions during the course of the evening.
“Tovarich” continues through August 25 at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, located on the campus of Drew University in Madison. For tickets, call 973-408-5600 or visit BoxOffice@ShakespeareNJ.org.