Theatre Review: DESCRIBE THE NIGHT (The Wilma Theater)

On paper, a Wilma mounted Describe the Night, interests me very little. A zeitgeisty, puzzle-box play about the nature of truth AND the rise of Vladimir Putin. It sounded like something that could appeal to Blanka Zizka’s worst impulses as a director: overly-complicated, ponderous, and self-serious. Bracing myself for the nearly three-hour show, I was almost instantly relieved that this production soars. With laser-sharp performances and spectacular production values, Describe the Night breathes with life.

While much has been written about the show’s non-linear structure, the plot is thankfully not hard to piece together. Spanning several generations, the play explores the relationships of Nikolai (Steven Rishard), his wife, Yevgenia (Sarah Gliko), and Soviet author Isaac Babel (Ross Beschler). As the show moves through time, we see how this story intersects with both the political rise of  Vladimir Putin, or Vova (Keith Conallen). All of these characters are based on historical figures but their relationships here are morphed and fictionalized. However, all of them, are worthy of a deep Wikipedia hole when you get home.

The major accomplishment of both Rajiv Joseph’s play and Blanka Zizka’s direction is that the play feels historically and culturally specific while also feeling universal. The actors all speak in American accents, making these characters feel at once alienated from their source material but more immediately relatable. The performances all given with such gusto can border on actorly, but I found they fit with the theatrical presentation and the play’s themes of lies and stories. Gliko and Rishard handily play characters at various stages of their lives. Conallen’s Vova grows into his own power. Beschler’s Isaac is the beating heart of this production, providing the show its moral and thematic center. Rounding out the ensemble is Feliks (Anthony Martinez-Briggs), a mysterious rental car salesperson, Ursula (Campbell O’Hare), Yevgenia’s granddaughter. and Marya (Brett Ashley Robinson), a present-day Polish journalist. All three are phenomenal in their supporting, but memorable roles. 

As with all shows at the Wilma this season, Blanka has rearranged the seating. Audience members can sit in a small portion of the traditional house seats, or in two rows along the side of the theatre. I sat on the side and loved the perspective it offered. My husband found the bars that prevent us from falling onto the stage obstructive. Huge kudos to set designer Matt Saunders, lighting designer Thom Weaver, and projection designer Christopher Ash. These elements all worked seamlessly together. There are several parts where the technical aspects of the show are downright thrilling.

One day later, and I am still thinking about how much I loved it.

Describe the Night runs through February 22, 2020 at The Wilma Theater,265 S Broad Street (Broad & Spruce Streets), Philadelphia, PA 19107. https://wilmatheater.org/event/describe-the-night/

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