Seventh Symphony

Renaissance Theatre is running an original production, Seventh Symphony, for the next two weeks, at their upstairs space on Meridian Street.  This is a moving retelling of a dark event in human history, about which most people have never heard.  Sadly, it’s relatively recent history, with people still alive today who lived through it, and this is a very informative, wrenching story.

Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich was born in Czarist Russia, and became one of the most famous composers of the Soviet era.  World War 2 arrived during the height of his composing career.  He was actually in Leningrad when the Germans began their siege of that city, which began on 8 September, 1941, just a few months after the Germans invaded Russia.  Hitler had no desire to be responsible for the care and feeding of millions of refugees, so his instructions to the army were to surround the city and starve it to death.  Shostakovich escaped the city, and finished work on his Seventh Symphony in March 1942, which he dedicated to the trapped occupants of Leningrad.  While the first performance was not in Leningrad, that became a major propaganda goal of the Soviet leadership–to perform the symphony inside the trapped city.  This was not an easy task.  Millions of people were dying in the streets from starvation and disease, and only fifteen members of the Leningrad orchestra were still alive.  The call went out for any musicians to come forward, and rehearsals began.  On 7 August, 1942, the date that Hitler had originally planned to accept the surrender of Leningrad, Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony was performed in the still-besieged city, broadcast live over speakers to the front lines.  Leningrad was not finally relieved until January, 1944, and in that 29 months, millions had died.  But on that day in August 1942, the people of the city had signaled their indomitable will to survive and triumph.

This original play, by Robert Riddle Baker, is the story of four of the trapped citizens of Leningrad.  Nominally told through the eyes of one character’s memoirs, this play tries to provide a glimpse into what it must have been like for an average citizen in that poor city.  If anything, this script doesn’t take the audience as deep as it could have into the pathos of existence for those trapped citizens, but it does give us a taste.  The eponymous symphony doesn’t make its appearance until the second act, when it supposedly becomes the ray of sunshine in their wretched lives.  This play is an attempt to portray a horrible period in human history without getting too dark, and overlain with apparent messages about the power and magic of love and art.  There is room in this story for a very powerful message about the importance of higher things in life, beyond mere survival, ESPECIALLY when that’s what day-to-day life is about, but this script doesn’t quite get us there.  This script is hopefully still a work in progress, going through the normal development process for any original work, but it is still humbling to be counted among the world-premiere audiences of a new work of art.

Baker’s direction does a very nice job at moving the story along, and supporting the pathos of the characters’ lives.  The blocking appears natural, and the staging of the scenes provides nice pictures and moments.  The script itself is lacking in character arcs, and the through-lines of plot and theme are a bit weak, but the characters are distinctive, memorable people, for whom we grow to care.

The acting is powerful and moving.  Though sometimes, it is over-the-top, one can only imagine what life must have been like for those city residents.  Raye Bonham Carter, as the dancer, “Vera”, does a phenomenal job of portraying the cold, hunger, and complete lack of control she has over her surroundings, though sometimes, like in her reaction to the neighbor intruding into her apartment, the script does not explain why Vera reacts so strongly.  Nora Hixon, as “Olga”, the writer whose memoirs we are apparently watching get lived through, serves as a reminder of the strength of love.  Art Walthall, as the violinist, “Pavil”, is the one character who actually participates in that famous performance.  He plays a key role in an interesting short plot line about which is more important, art or love.  Dan Mazikowski, as the Communist-party member, “Boris”, is probably the most “real” character on the stage, and very nicely shows what it must have been like for those with a little bit of power, to spend it trying to help others, in a truly hopeless situation.  Boris’ feelings about corruption in the party leadership, while realistic, come across as a distraction from the main themes of the show, but it still provides for the play’s very climactic moment, and one hopes we see more of Mazikowski in the future.  Elizabeth Shaffer, as the poverty-stricken neighbor, “Mrs. Kozlov”, does a nice job with pointing out that our four main characters actually have it pretty good, compared to most of the city residents.

The set, also by Bob Baker, well reflects the living conditions of a subdivided mansion turned into a squat house for refugees, which has the right “feel” for this production.  There is a question of where exactly the light sources are, once the power to the city has been cut, given that the one window in the room is small and upstage.  The set dressing nicely displays generally period pieces appropriate for these characters, though far more of their possessions should have been removed from the apartment during the intermission, to accurately reflect the second-act line about there being “nothing left” to sell or give away for medicine.  The costumes, by Gay Broad and Baker, included a few non-period pieces, but were generally well thought out, and helpful for defining the characters.  The lighting design, by Baker and Lynn Broad, was sufficient to get across the mood and special effects required to show nearby artillery barrages.  Again, with the only apparent window to outside being upstage, the flashes of light from outside are a bit jarring when they are clearly coming from downstage.  Arecia Jones’ sound design and execution did a generally nice job of helping provide the mood and define the environment.  Someday, someone in Huntsville will actually place speakers appropriately so that sound supposedly coming from a specific location, like the hubbub from the noisy neighbors in the next room, will actually come from that location onstage, but that may be a technical problem too difficult to overcome.

This world-premier production by Renaissance Theatre of Seventh Symphony is running through 5 June.  Show times and reservations can be found here.  It is always a valuable experience to see new works of art be born, and this effort is worth the time.

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