Black Milk

European Repertory Company

at the Athenaeum Theatre

Writing 100 years ago, at the dawn of the 20th century and the twilight of the czars, Anton Chekhov gave us plays about famously unhappy patricians living on exhausted country estates and longing for la haute culture of Moscow while the upstart millionaire sons of their former serfs make them offers they can’t refuse. Now comes Vassili Sigarev, the anti-Chekhov. A true child of the new Russia, Sigarev was only 8 years old when Gorbachev came to power and 13 when the USSR ceased to exist. He grew to maturity under Yeltsin and Putin and the cage-match capitalism of the oligarchs. His characters are anything but patricians and his Moscow anything but haute. Where the metropolis was at least a viable fantasy for Chekhov’s sad souls, its allure for Sigarev is entirely ironic. His Moscow is a hard, cheap, cynical, vulgar, conniving place, home to graceless vices.

And his Muscovites are no better. We meet two of them in Black Milk. Lyovchik and his very pregnant young wife, Poppet, are a pair of would-be sharpies who travel the provinces by train selling Malaysian-made “supertoasters” to the peasant “savages” at each godforsaken stop. Actually, they don’t sell the toasters, they give them away–but the delivery charge is 200 rubles. The villagers snap them up, less for the toast than for the taste of modernity.

Lyovchik and Poppet have just finished draining 1,000 rubles from the already pumped out economy of a place called Mokhovoye–located squarely, we’re told, in Mother Russia’s ass–and are waiting in the depot for the next train out. They beguile the time by snacking on cigarettes and lollipops (perfect for the expectant mother), cracking wise with the larcenous ticket clerk, and intimidating the villagers who show up after ever so slowly and meekly coming to the conclusion they’ve been had.

Mostly, however, Lyovchik and Poppet bitch. And bitch. And bitch some more. Bitch is what they know; it’s the language people speak where they come from. Taunts, obscenities, and oafish irony form the complete vocabulary of the hip young urbanite living in the chaos of a devastated culture. In a way they don’t mean anything by it–but in a way they do: speaking Bitch gives them the edge they need to negotiate (or, more accurately, insulate themselves from having to negotiate) a lot of ugly situations. To out-ugly those situations. Not unlike the American kids, I guess, who embrace pimp style. As Poppet says, “A little boy comes up to you on the street and asks for bread and you tell him to fuck off. Even if something inside you wants to give him a few kopecks. But you tell him to fuck off. Because no one else gives him any money, so why should you. Why should you…so you tell him to fuck off.”

Poppet demonstrates an excellent command of Bitch throughout the first act of Black Milk–even better than Lyovchik’s, perhaps because she’s a little smarter than he is. But things change when she goes suddenly into labor and has to deliver her baby in Mokhovoye. Then some Mother starts to creep into her speech. The Mother tongue, as it were.

Sigarev posits a rural, traditionalist ideal in opposition to the killer entrepreneurialism of the new Russia. He even laces it with a bit of Christian cheek turning, as when Poppet in her Mother mode speaks admiringly of how “you can treat [the villagers] like shit, and they’ll still be kind to you. And they’ll even apologize for not giving you enough.” That ideal threatens to devolve into nativism at times, especially when Sigarev resorts to earnest mystical imagery to invoke the nurturing aspect of eternal Mother Russia. But he saves himself, the play, and my respect for his intellect–first by giving Poppet and Lyovchik a final passage that turns everything upside down before turning it and turning it again, and second by giving us villagers who can scheme and manipulate, self-delude, self-medicate, act out, and perhaps even murder with all the gusto of any Muscovite when the spirit moves them. These guys can be rotten–they’re just not soullessly rotten.

Sigarev’s rural ideal inverts Chekhov, whose characters accept the quiet life of the provinces only after they’ve given up everything else. But he’s exactly like Chekhov in his comprehension of how language shapes character. Though Chekhov’s people tend to speak Diffidence rather than Bitch, the deep structure is the same for both: a profound sense of not belonging. Of having been cut off from the homeland of one’s own heart. For this reason, the quality of the translation can make or break an American version of Black Milk. Sasha Dugdale’s is fluent, sharp, and appropriately idiomatic while never letting us forget that we’re deep in, well, the interior parts of Russia.

Luda Lopatina’s production makes the most of Dugdale’s excellent work. Despite some timing trouble on opening night–and more important, despite the overwrought visual metaphor that gives the play its title and its least intelligible moment–Lopatina offers up a show that moves easily and believably between the human extremes of clownishness and cruelty. Carolyn Ann Hoerdemann is especially strong as the ticket agent who’s seen it all and probably caused most of it. As Narrator, Bob Pries projects a dry irony that contrasts nicely with the accordion in his hands. A note in the press packet suggests that Nathan Craig came late to his role as Lyovchik, and it shows: on opening night his Bitch carried distinct accents of Diffidence that I hope he’ll soon lose. Heather Prete must be very grateful for a role like that of Poppet, which allows her to hit notes suggesting everything from an infomercial model to Saint Teresa of Avila in ecstasy. She expresses her gratitude by hitting those notes full on.