A prerevolutionary Russian equivalent of Dallas or Dynasty, Maxim Gorky’s Vassa is a portrait of capitalist decadence. Now receiving its North American première at Montreal’s Centaur Theatre, the moody melodrama focuses on Vassa Zheleznova, a fierce matriarch who struggles to keep the family’s shipping business from disintegrating while her brother and husband become embroiled in scandal. Gorky wrote Vassa Zheleznova in 1910, revising it 26 years later to conform with his new mission as Stalin’s cultural czar.
London-based director Helena Kaut-Howson’s adaptation takes elements from both drafts for a better political and dramatic balance.
Vassa (Sandra Nicholls) is so powerful that when her husband is accused of corrupting minors, she orders him to commit suicide—and he obeys. Nicholls’s forceful and utterly convincing performance lifts Gorky’s often-heavy-handed writing beyond its limitations. Meanwhile, the play’s weighty themes get a muchneeded touch of levity from the Centaur’s artistic director, Maurice Podbrey, who delivers a fine comic performance as Vassa’s brother, a lush whose political activity never gets beyond lunging at Vassa’s anarchist daughter-in-law, Rachel (Louise Marleau).
In an astonishingly detailed production, Kaut-Howson has drawn believable passion from the ensemble. Alternately lugubrious, insightful and funny, Vassa is a bracing meditation on power and decay.
A LIE OF THE MIND
By Sam Shepard Directed by Larry Lillo
Sounding like latter-day cowboys who have lost the freedom of the open range, the male characters of American playwright Sam Shepard act out their dreams of mayhem—and leave
their bewildered women to pick up the pieces. Shepard’s most recent play, A Lie of the Mind, is currently running in an excellent production at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre. The play picks up on the calamitous life of a typical Shepard hero named Jake (Kim Coates) just after he has beaten up his actress wife, Beth (Brenda Robins).
Crippled and brain-damaged, Beth is rescued by her protective brother and spirited away to their parents’ Montana home. Meanwhile, Jake suffers a breakdown and retreats to his childhood bedroom, where his over-
bearing mother, Lorraine (Susan Wright), succors him with cream of broccoli soup. The action drifts ever deeper into the shadowy borderland between the normal and the surreal. By the play’s end, it seems entirely credible that Jake should set out in the dead of winter, clad only in long underwear, his father’s leather jacket and a large American flag, to find Beth.
The flag is typical of Shepard’s often preachy and self-conscious use of American icons, and there is an emotional deadness at the play’s heart. But the energy and humor conveyed by the strong cast are infectious. A Lie of the Mind does not tell the whole truth about contemporary America, but its revelations are as haunting as a badlands sunset.
RAP MASTER RONNIE
Lyrics by Garry Trudeau Music by Elizabeth Swados Directed by Frank Condon
President Ronald Reagan’s administration still has a year of life remaining, but the buzzards of satire are already busy tearing strips off it. One of the most entertaining presences at the feast has been Garry Trudeau, whose Doonesbury cartoon strip has often made sardonic jabs at Reagan’s conservative revolution. In 1984 Trudeau extended his field of action with a satirical musical comedy, Rap Master Ronnie, which he created along with composer Elizabeth Swados. Already widely staged in the
United States, the work had its Canadian première last week at Toronto Workshop Productions.
Ray Landry’s brilliant, uncannily accurate portrayal of Reagan is backed by a strong all-purpose chorus, who take the roles of Reagan’s bodyguards, family and other loyal Republicans. Their bouncy repertoire contains a few songs of particular interest to Canadians, including one on acid rain. When a little boy asks his parents why his favorite lake is dying, they sing a number whose refrain is “We gotta do one more study, little buddy.” But Rap Master Ronnie saves its hardest punches for the subject of nuclear war: its humor darkens radically as it becomes obvious that having a joker in the White House is no laughing matter.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.