Things get racy with Russian royalty in Garrett Heater’s new play The Romanovs
By James MacKillop
Only two instances do not establish a pattern, but in his second original drama in less than 12 months, playwright Garrett Heater demarcates clear priorities with The Romanovs. He likes family dramas in which characters are defined in bouncing off each other in roles we all know intuitively: father, mother, children. By taking ambiguous episodes from history, he can begin with ready-made issues and then solve them.
In his November 2010 production of Lizzie Borden Took an Axe, Heater quite plausibly explained how a daughter in an affluent family might murder her parents and get away with it. In The Romanovs, the Covey Theatre Company production now at the Mulroy Civic Center’s BeVard Community Room, Heater leaves himself less room to invent. No matter what their follies and failures, the last Russian royal family is done in by the Bolsheviks. What that leaves Heater to illuminate is the domestic turmoil before the end.
A stage play, novel or movie set in history is entitled to make any invention it wishes. William Shakespeare established the template here. The real live Julius Caesar was not sufficiently clever as to address his assassin, “Et tu, Brute?” and so the Bard had to think it up for him. Similarly, Czar Nicholas II in life was a notorious anti-Semite, the man in whose reign Tevye and his brood were driven from Anatevka. Here he is a man of conscience and a less-than-forceful autocrat. Similarly, the notorious mad monk Rasputin is still revered by latterday mystics in post-Soviet Russia who claim that all you have heard about him comes from biased and inaccurate press. It is with Rasputin, however, that Heater is most inventive.
History is not thrown in the waste basket, however. The 17 scenes, nine in the first act, eight in the second, are all conscientiously dated, from January 1905 to July 17, 1918. Taken directly from contemporary testimony, Heater projects voice-overs from people who care about what is happening to Russia and the royal family, like King George V of England (Bil Hughes), V.I. Lenin (Richard Mulligan) and Yurovsky the assassin (Rob Mulligan). The events of 90 years ago were unquestionably brutal, and their resonances are with us still.
Things begin to go badly for Russia and the royal family 12 years before the storming of the Winter Palace. In a fit of military hubris, the Russians war with the Japanese, the first such conflict between a European and an Asian nation, leading to the Kremlin’s humiliation. In the same year fighting
broke out on the streets in a preview of the enormous upheaval to come. In this production’s bare set, we never see combat or weapons, but we do have uniforms, created by playwright-director Heater.
In those brightly colored uniforms Czar Nicholas (David Witanowski), dressed as the nominal head of the army, confers with his military aide, Grand Duke Nikolasha (Robert Kovak), an ironist and the only wit in the cast. He reports that 93 peasants have been shot during a demonstration. Or was it 4,000? Nicholas is horrified at the loss of life, but also a bit confused. Just how bad was the bloodshed? How did it happen? Who was responsible? These are not just political questions but epistemological ones.
In this well-polished piece of exposition Heater tells us the most important things we need to know about the Czar. He would like to do the right thing, the strongest and most virtuous, if only he knew the truth. And usually he does not. His scolding mother, Dowager Empress Dagmar (Susan Blumer), cannot beat sense into him Most of the action takes place in the royal household. The beautiful, selfpossessed czarina, Empress Alexandra (Katharine Gibson), has just given birth to a son and heir as the action begins. In what may be a community theater first, the infant son Alexie is played by a live but very quiet infant, Calvin Mele, the son of veteran performers Jodi Bova and Josh Mele. When Alexie reaches age 9 or so he is played by Christof Deboni, in what turns out to be one of the most demanding roles in the entire project. Along with a series of florid emotional changes, Alexie must suffer near-death experiences from his hemophilia, the fatal blood disorder.
In scenes of theatrical economy, Heater sketches individual characters for the four Romanov sisters, starting with Olga (Amy Ligoci), the most bookish. He has the most fun with Anastasia (Esther Louise Richardson), the one later thought to have survived to become fodder for hoaxes and conspiracy theories. Here she is a tomboy and scamp, a torment to Alexie.
Alexie’s condition, of course, is greater torment for his parents. Despairing of any hope for a cure from contemporary medicine, Alexandra falls prey to the coaxing of her naïve, flibbertigibbet friend, Anna Vyrubova (Kate Huddleston). She sings the praises of a wonder-working holy man from the boondocks, Grigori Rasputin (Bruce Paulsen), even though she admits, “He smells like a goat.” The holy man promises to heal the child, and he appears to do just that. Once ingratiated in the household, his slimy tentacles slither everywhere.
Up until this point playwright Heater has hewed fairly close to the historical record, but with the mad monk he cuts loose. There may be lots of information about Rasputin, but it is disputed. It was apparently a Bolshevik fabrication that his very name means “licentious.” Heater’s character may draw more from dramatic history or recent news. Does he cavort with followers on the hillside, urging them to “cleanse” themselves through sin? So did Dionysus in Euripides’ The Bacchae. For lack of personal hygiene look to Moliere’s Tartuffe.
Lubriciousness? Try Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry. For hypocrisy and violence Heater might have drawn on Osama bin Laden, the puritan who loved to relax with porn.
That’s a lot of evil for a single actor to project. Bruce Paulsen, very tall and blessed with an opera singer’s sonorous voice, moves and speaks slowly, not unlike Boris Karloff in the 1930s, but with more indecent dialogue. Czar Nicholas, not always oblivious, discerns the calamity the monk promises to be. But Katharine Gibson, one of the most admired leading ladies in community theater, is put to the test in retaining her character Akexandra’s faith in this outrageous charlatan, without seeming a blithering fool.
The audience knows more than the royal family. Seemingly alone in the residence Rasputin violently forces himself upon blameless servant Maria (Kimberly Panek). Rape scenes are meant to shock and disgust. (Compare what happens to Aldonza in Man of La Mancha, which is also on the current local floorboards.) In the name of history and the playwright’s anathema at moral cancer, this pushes the limits here. Paulsen, a radio announcer on WCNY-FM 91.3, advises listeners that one scene is R-rated. It prefigures the even greater violence coming to the Romanovs.
The epic collapse of a 300-yearold dynasty is harder to handle than a hatchet murder in Fall River, Mass. Yet playwright, director and costumer Heater gets us involved with the follies and beauties of this doomed family.
This production runs through Saturday, Oct. 22. See Times Table for information.