Rising Above the Competition

FSU/Asolo Conservatory's The Competition is a well-acted loser

click to enlarge NO CONTEST: Getting the best of The - Competition are, from left, Sarah Stockton, - Melissa A. Teitel, Mary Lipple, and Lesslie Dodge - Crane. - FRANK ATURA
NO CONTEST: Getting the best of The Competition are, from left, Sarah Stockton, Melissa A. Teitel, Mary Lipple, and Lesslie Dodge Crane.

The Russian playwright Alexander Galin is a bona fide literary hero. During the 1970s — the Brezhnev years — he wrote plays about life under communism that were so honest, they were censored or banned. When Mikhail Gorbachev brought glasnost to the USSR in the late 1980s, Galin's work finally came to light, not only in Russia but also worldwide. His play Stars in the Morning Sky, about the lives of four prostitutes on the fringes of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, won the Olivier Award (England's Tony) in 1988 and also was staged on Broadway (in Russian) in 1989. His other plays include Retro, The Roof (about campus life in contemporary Russia), and The Hole. In all, his plays have been staged by more than 200 theaters in Russia, Europe, America and Asia. Galin is also a screenwriter (The Delegation, The Photo, and La Noce) and a theater and movie director. At age 56, he's come a long way from his stint as a factory worker in Kursk, dabbling in puppet theater. But as much as it's easy to admire Galin's courage as a truth-speaker when the truth was outlawed, it's difficult to esteem The Competition, his play currently showing at the Asolo Theatre in a production by the FSU/Asolo Conservatory. This allegory about life in present-day Russia may speak volumes metaphorically, but it fails on the first and essential level of theater — the realm of what's-right-in-front-of-us. Alternately predictable, improbable and just plain confusing, The Competition is a play that tells us little on the surface, and ends by boring us with its redundant situations and perfunctory characterizations.

Fortunately, the second-year Conservatory students who make up the cast are among the most talented student actors I've seen in several years, so there are performances to enjoy here even when the text is less than satisfying. But be forewarned: the most dramatic thing about The Competition is its title. And even that refers to a contest we never see.

What we do see is this: Five women appear in a back room of the nearly abandoned Cosmos movie theater and wait for their chance to compete for some sort of song-and-dance job in distant Japan. The ad that they've seen says, "Established Japanese company offering prestigious work in elite nighttime shows. ... We seek talented women with artistic capabilities. Preference given to dancing and singing skills." One of the women has brought her accordion, others are dressed sluttishly, while another, more intellectual type insists that she won't remove her leotard under any conditions. While we're wondering how any sentient being can doubt that the ad is aimed at recruiting strippers, a translator enters and announces that the winners will go not to Japan but to men's clubs in Bangkok. He adds that the Japanese sponsors aren't interested in older or married women, and that in any case, everyone in the room has been disqualified. The women — now joined by the mother of two of them — object and eventually meet one of the sponsoring Japanese businessmen. Granted a sexual peep show, he relents and allows them to enter. But now there's a new rule: married contestants must have signed authorizations by their husbands. On cue, two of the husbands arrive, soon joined by a third. They agonize over and/or fulminate against their wives' choice of pastime. Finally, we learn what we really lost interest in long ago: who will enter the competition. Then the play ends.

It's not convincing. First of all, it's unthinkable that the women could remain in the dark about the job that's being offered them, and we in the audience can't help but feel a thousand miles ahead of them for much of the evening. We also feel a big so-what when two characters who act, dress and talk like prostitutes admit that ... they're prostitutes. Then there's the unlikely coincidence of the husbands' appearances just when the job sponsors have demanded that they sign off on their wives' participation. And there's the central confusion: are these women consciously willing to become strippers, or do they somehow believe that in Bangkok men's clubs they'll be asked to do art?

A worrisome interview in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune makes me wonder if this confusion doesn't even extend to the author. Alexander Galin is quoted as saying that "The play focuses on characters who are immediately rejected from the competition. For me, they represent millions in Russia who feel rejected from the competition of life." But can Galin really intend that "the competition of life" be represented artistically by the competition to undress for visitors to Asia's sex capital? The infelicity of the metaphor is so enormous, I have to assume that I'm missing something. Or is Galin some sort of Neil LaBute-type cynic who sees "the competition of life" as a vulgar, embarrassing strip tease?

At least the acting is creditable. Best of all is Sam Osheroff, who plays husband Boris as an escapee from a Dostoevsky novel, all intellectual and brooding and one-step-from-suicidal (he also has a few explicit words about Russian life and history that are a real relief from the allegory). But also just fine are Mary Lipple as demure Nina, Devon Pipars as accordionist Tamara Back, Deanna Gibson as sexy Olga, and Melissa A. Teitel as matron and eternal vodka-dispenser Varvara. Ken Ferrigni couldn't be better as translator-from-the-Japanese Albert, and Terry Small is suitably menacing as brawny Vasily.

One unqualified success is Richard E. Cannon's realistic backstage set, featuring graffiti and odd groups of broken seats. And Cathleen Crocker-Perry's costumes are colorful and evocative. I wish that Jon-Michael Peterson's sound design were less redundant, though. When a play works over as few themes as does this one, the last thing we need is a recurring leitmotif. Finally, the direction, by Galin himself along with Gil Lazier, is always natural and kinetic.

In sum: I salute Alexander Galin as one of those essential, intrepid artists like Vaclav Havel or Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who stood up for truth in a hard time, when only lies were rewarded. And I look forward to one day seeing Stars in the Morning Sky and his other plays.

But I have to vote "no" on The Competition.

Because even a dramatic allegory needs a credible drama.

Contact Performance Critic Mark E. Leib at [email protected] or 813-248-8888 ext. 305.

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