Ever suddenly get the feeling that the world you thought you knew isn't the one you're actually living in? Linking that sense of existential vertigo with times of violent social upheaval, Independent Shakespeare Company presents the West Coast premiere of Sharr White's "The Snow Geese" in its intimate Atwater studio theater.
White's 2013 drama is less of a departure than it might seem from the classical repertoire of a theater company best known for its spirited summer Shakespearean romps in Griffith Park. Deliberate overtones of Chekhov abound in this period portrait of the discontented members of a 1917 landed gentry family unraveling in the face of personal turmoil and the global ravages of World War I.
In place of Chekov's cherry orchard, the rural estate at risk is a hunting lodge in upstate New York. The recent untimely death of the family patriarch has uncovered desperate financial straits that his too-trusting wife (Melissa Chalsma) and pampered older son (Evan Lewis Smith) refuse to believe, despite the efforts of the younger son (Nikhil Pai) to make them see reality.
Adding to the tension, their displaced aunt (Bernadette Sullivan) pits her fanatical Methodist austerity against the family's hedonistic self-indulgences. Her immigrant husband (Bruce Katzman) serves a dual dramatic function as the classic Chekhovian doctor figure dispensing compassionate truths and as a persecuted victim of anti-German hatred. Further gilding that topically relevant lily is their maid (Kalean Ung), a Ukrainian war refugee; her mistress tells her "I didn't care what you were" — so long as she wasn't a Muslim.
Per Chekhov's famous formula, a gun shown in the first act is fired in the second, but in that second act the naturalism that makes Chekhov's characters so compelling gives way to melodramatic overload. The shift affords some intense performance opportunities, particularly for Chalsma's dignified widow when a sedative-induced reverie unleashes her erotic passion for her dead husband (Faqir Hassan); Pai's underdog son also makes some fine strides toward independence.
Director David Melville steers his cast with assured focus and applies inventive choreography and sound effects to bridge classical and modern sensibilities, but the play adds little new to either.
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‘The Snow Geese’
Where: Atwater Crossing Arts + Innovation Complex, 3191 Casitas Ave. No. 168, Atwater Village
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; ends April 9
Tickets: $20 (limited free tickets available for each performance)
Information: (818) 710-6306 or www.iscla.org
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
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