- The Washington Times - Monday, January 10, 2005

Mother Russia is a slattern in Vassily Sigarev’s pungent “Black Milk.” Her body and soul have been sold to the West, and she is an absentee parent — not just cold and unfeeling, but because of environmental pollution, unable to sustain and nourish her children.

Yes, Mr. Sigarev loves his homeland. And despite all the bile surging through his play, he still hopes for redemption and renewal. The Studio Theatre’s production of the 2003 work, under the direction of Serge Seiden, seems more at ease with the cruder aspects than the spiritual elements but is a forceful evocation of post-Soviet Russia struggling with its identity and establishing order out of chaos.

Modern-day Russia has been compared to the Wild West, where it’s every man for himself. No rules exist save for “gun justice,” and this is no mere hyperbole.

Mr. Sigarev’s depiction of Russia is of a place where the people are clawing for survival — a valueless and classless system where the outlaws rule.

Mr. Sigarev sets “Black Milk” (the title originates in Auschwitz survivor Paul Celan’s poem “Deathfugue,” which begins with the lines “Black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening/we drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night”) in a grimy railway station in the middle of nowhere, presumably Siberia.

Two fabulous opportunists from Moscow, Lyovchik (played by Matthew Montelongo) and his massively pregnant wife, Shura (Holly Twyford), are trying to get back to their condo and creature comforts after a successful stint fleecing the rural residents. Like a 21st-century incarnation of the Wild West snake-oil salesman, the pair is selling “super toasters” at hugely inflated prices to peasants who think the appliances are either bric-a-brac or small ovens.

As is the case with scam artists, Lyovchik and Shura burst with color. Punked out in black and purple as if it’s London in the summer of 1980, they are brash and sneering cocks of the walk; their speech is splattered with expletives and a personal slang that derisively refers to people as “tartars,” “yurts” and “Mongols.”

Childbirth gets in the way of their plans, and they are stuck in this backwater for 10 days while Shura bears their daughter. It’s almost a cliche, but childbirth changes everything for Shura. She is moved by the simple, no-strings generosity of the local midwife, Auntie Pasha (Elizabeth Stripe), and sees the small town as a place to make a better life for her daughter.

Lyovchik will have none of it. He wants the angry, tough Shura back, and he will do anything — even beat his childbirth-weakened wife —to get his way. “Black Milk” provides a shard of softness in Shura’s rapturous description of her spiritual reawakening and her brief realization of God’s mercy. Still, what we’re left with is overriding cynicism, as Shura cannot break free of her mutually abusive relationship with her husband. In the brutal final scene, we watch her harden once again into the harridan who shrieks and snatches for everything she gets.

In a sense, Shura embodies modern Russia — lawless, impudent and opportunistic. Miss Twyford, who affects an annoying false laugh for the role, is truly frightening as Shura. Even in her moments of subdued vulnerability and the comic awkwardness of her late-stage pregnancy, there is something empty and aching about Miss Twyford’s portrayal, which works for the violent scenes but is unconvincing when she must show spiritual conversion. Similarly, Mr. Montelongo contributes an electrifying performance as Lyovchik, touchy and menacing from the get-go with no growth or arc by the end.

The only character exhibiting shading is the Ticket Clerk (Anne Stone), who embodies Soviet Russian principles. She is a gruff rules-follower — with a bootleg vodka business on the side — resigned to performing a soul-destroying job and counting the days until retirement. Yet when tragedy strikes, her deeply buried conscience seeps to the surface. Miss Stone personifies Mother Russia in her mordantly comic, perversely maternal performance.

At times, “Black Milk” is a play at odds with itself.

Is it a hip evocation of the “Wild East,” a Russian version of “Pulp Fiction”? Or is it a meditation on an old and addled country desperate for rebirth?

***

WHAT: “Black Milk” by Vassily Sigarev

WHERE: Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW

WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Through Feb. 13.

TICKETS: $35 to $48

PHONE: 303/332-3300

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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