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2007 07 13
The Kreutzer Sonata at the Fringe Festival
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It’s a Beethoven piece. It’s a short Tolstoy story. It’s a play in this year’s Fringe Theatre festival. Wait….you’re all right! And in chronological order too: the Sonata inspired Tolstoy’s story, which was in turn adapted for the stage.

I caught Pandaterian Plays production of the Kreutzer Sonata (adapted and directed by David Collins) as part of this year’s Fringe Festival, which is essentially one man (Peter Nelson) explaining to a young couple (Kate O’Neill and James Snetsinger) why he killed his wife (Stephanie Villano). In so doing, he shatters traditional ideas about romantic relationships, ‘the family’ and violence against women. And although Tolstoy’s story was written in 1889, not as much has changed as you might think. In the Director’s Statement Collins notes:

“Several issues and ideas in the story are just as relevant now and in Tolstoy’s time (if not more so), and I thought it would be interesting to present an audience with these ideas, which in some cases are diametrically opposed to the way our (pop) culture typically deals with the same topics.”


Here’s taste of some of these ideas: People only get involved in long term relationships for the guaranteed sex partner. If marriage is the prison, having children is like throwing away the key. Couples do immense (emotional) violence to each other constantly, so was his crime of killing his wife truly that bad when she was really ‘dead’ years before? One can only imagine how these ideas were received over a hundred years ago.

These are indeed very interesting and thought-provoking sentiments, much bolstered by the top notch acting. First-time Fringer Stephanie Villano (wife Natalie) was magnificent, particularly in the so-good-they-were-frightening fight scenes. Kate O’Neill and James Snetsinger (couple hearing the explanation) were also excellent in their considerably more low-key roles of alternately listening and being bewildered by the murderer’s justification. Stephen Tassie (wife Natalie’s violinist friend) played the slightly-smarmy-bachelor-on-the-make admirably, and with much subtlety. But they were all outperformed by the lead Peter Nelson (you may remember him from Lifeboat, from last year’s Fringe Festival), who can be forgiven for stumbling over a few of his astonishingly large number of lines. He was convincingly explosive and patriarchal in his fight scenes with Villano, arrogant and unapologetic with O’Neill and Snetsinger. He owned the stage.

But there were a few problems; when the main character frequently moves quickly across the stage the lighting folks had better move with him – more than once that spotlight was nowhere near where it should have been. And although one cannot expect actors to be musicians as well, my disbelief was decidedly unsuspended when, more than once, Tassie and Villano’s hands failed to synch their mime of playing the on-stage piano and violin with the music itself.

But this is relatively minor compared to the larger issue of the narrative technique. Nelson’s role demanded that, by turns, he had to narrate his own tale to the audience, justify the murder in conversation with the young couple, and act out a few violent scenes with his wife. Playing three roles in one is not only incredibly difficult for the performer, but somewhat tiring for the audience. This may not have been the case had the ‘narrator’ role not taken up the majority of the time – at times I felt that I had stumbled into a rather dry lecture on sexual politics. Not having read Tolstoy’s story I do not know whether the narration was dealt with in a similar way, but if it was, Collins made the wrong choice to use it again in his adaptation for the stage. Further, although this material has great potential to be dealt with using much subtlety and innuendo (the glance of askance, the martyred sigh), I found it rather heavy-handed. Surely we do not need the narrator to tell us at length about his own feelings of jealousy when we have just seen a brilliantly rendered scene of said jealousy?

This is David Collins first attempt at a theatrical production, and, as such, is commendable. However, it is rather frustrating to see a play in which truly excellent performances are sabotaged by narrative techniques which are ill suited to the subject matter.

But this is the beauty of theatre: what I saw (the very first show) was likely their worst performance, and may differ immeasurably from subsequent ones. You have two more chances to go see it for yourself: The Kreutzer Sonata plays at the Factory Theatre Mainspace tonight at 11 p.m. and on July 15th at 4 p.m.

Photo by Selva

[email this story] Posted by Liza Badaloo on 07/13 at 09:27 PM

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