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Theater review: Life and art boundaries blur in fluid 'Neva'

Arts and CultureChileRussia

Six months after her husband's death, Olga Knipper, famed actress and widow of Anton Chekhov, is gearing up to face an audience again.

In a dimly lighted rehearsal hall in St. Petersburg, Russia, with two other actors, she prepares to resume her life onstage. Her monologue from "The Cherry Orchard," though, is not coming out right. She fears that grief has destroyed her capacity to feel.

Outside a graver crisis is erupting. A march of workers ended in a massacre. Actors from this company may have been killed. The bloodshed of this day — Jan. 9, 1905 — will be recorded in history books.

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"Neva," Guillermo Calderón's hall-of-mirrors drama, which is being performed at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in an intimate upstairs space through Sunday, grapples with the meaning of theater at a time of revolutionary turmoil. What value does acting have when society itself is cracking open?

The play, a highlight of the 2011 RADAR L.A. Festival imported from Chile's Teatro en el Blanco, has returned in an English-language version by Andrea Thome. (The current production, a collaboration of Center Theatre Group, South Coast Repertory and La Jolla Playhouse, can be seen at SCR from Wednesday through June 23 and La Jolla Playhouse from June 26-30.)

Named after the Russian river, "Neva" moves fluidly though unpredictably. Members of a theater ensemble, the three characters — Olga (Sue Cremin), Aleko (Ramón De Ocampo) and Masha (Ruth Livier) — act and interact in a manner that makes it difficult to distinguish life from art.

One minute they are enacting a scene from a Chekhov play, the next they are re-creating moments from the author's life and death. In between they flirt and bicker in an improvisational game, in which Olga plays diva to Masha's ingénue and Aleko flexibly offers his services as male lead.

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The platform they occupy, illuminated by a theatrical lamp, is a playground. But their kind of play is serious business. They are thespians with a strong calling. Yet the world on the other side of the stage door is burning.

In times of emergency, can the quest for reality onstage be something more than a decadent indulgence? Following Chekhov's example, "Neva" poses more questions than answers.

Calderón's direction remains as concentrated as his writing, though an ineffable quality has been lost in translation. When the play was first performed in Los Angeles at REDCAT, the work was notable for two stupendous actresses who conveyed the passion and fury of Calderón's inquiry.

The actresses here are excellent, as is De Ocampo, but they don't seem as native to Calderón's vision. The production is more self-conscious, less raw. Masha's closing monologue, a scathing indictment of the vanity of theater ("I'm ashamed to be an actress. It's so selfish, it's a bourgeois trap, a trash heap, a stable full of mares…"), is acted with great intensity by Livier, but in the Chilean production it emanated as an outcry, the pained testimony of a witness of history.

"Neva" can leave a baffling first impression, but it has a dreamlike power. That power, even when diminished, remains impressive. After seeing the play Thursday night, I woke Friday morning still wandering in Calderón's provocative maze. More conscious of the theater's limitations as an agent of political change, I found myself marveling at its ability to transcend that limitation by commenting on it.

'Neva'

Where: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City

When: 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Ends Sunday.

Price: $30

Contact: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.centertheatregroup.org/neva

Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes with no intermission

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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