Adapted by Chris Hainsworth
Intense, wholly committed performances create a historical nightmare
|Lifeline Theatre presents|
Review by Catey Sullivan
Lifeline Theatre’s staging of Hunger will leave you simultaneously wanting both more and less. The slow, relentless starvation of a group of scientists during the siege of Leningrad makes for a brutal and harrowing story, told in meticulous detail in Lifeline Theatre’s production of Elise Blackwell’s compelling novel. Yet the all-but unimaginable hardships endured in a city whose population was reduced to eating rats – and worse – often becomes turgid under the weight of a Chris Hainsworth’s adaptation. Hunger is well-acted and laudably faithful to its source material. But the bloat of dialogue and the over-plotted action sometimes renders the story inert. In all, Hunger is a mixed bag – an extraordinary story that sometimes sags under its own weight.
Seen from the perspective of a life of plenty (which I’m going to assume is the perspective of most theater-goers have given their very ability to spend time and money on the arts) the bare bones of Hunger are almost unimaginable. For 872 grueling days starting in September, 1941, Leningrad was essentially cut off from the rest of the world. The Axis blockade made a loaf of bread worth triple its weight in gold. When the rats ran out, murder became a means of nourishment, the dead providing meat. Hunger takes place in the heart of that relentless desperation, as a group of state-sponsored botanists watch over a cache of rare seeds. Gathered during life-threatening expeditions the globe over, the seeds – and the scientists’ study of them – could unlock the secrets of crop yields that could ensure that Russia would never go hungry again. That’s the long-term picture. In the short term, the seeds could keep their keepers from dying.
Early in the siege, the tight-knit cadre of scientists take an oath to protect and preserve the seeds, no matter how unbearable their own hunger becomes. It’s a noble promise that becomes harder and harder to honor as the days tick into months and then years of extreme deprivation. As for the scientists themselves, they begin to form a human Petrie dish of survival instincts, the instinct to preserve their own lives by any means necessary clashing with their ardent desire to ensure a famine-free future. Complicating those competing desires is a complex range of interpersonal relationships and war-time politics. It’s that thicket of sub-issues that derails Hunger, the pristine urgency of survival during famine becoming cluttered by a soap opera’s worth of extra-marital intrigues and political shifts within the insular world of elite scientists.
Over the course of two-and-a-half hours, director Robert Kauzlaric and his ensemble cast trace the trajectory of a massive emergency that drives some characters mad, some to grotesque moral compromises and others to death. The story is peppered with flashbacks highlighting critical points in the botanists’ professional and personal history. The pursuit of seeds took place from South America to New Orleans, amid landslides, infidelities and the addictive adrenalin rushes. The primary problem with Hainsworth’s adaptation is its sheer sprawl. There’s simply too much to digest here; the very spread and scope of the piece dilutes its impact.
A secondary problem comes from double- (and in one case triple) casting. More than a few characters die midway through Hunger, or are carted off to Gulags, never to be seen again. The actors playing these characters, however, reappear – their hair restyled, their postures amended and their costumes tweaked to play somebody new. As fine as these actors are, it’s jarring when a character who has been killed/imprisoned returns as somebody else entirely. The dialogue makes clear that the actor who played the former director is now playing a botanist from a rival camp. The visual tells a different story entirely. Ditto when the quiet, dowdy botanist who initiated the oath of protection returns as a siren of a survivor or when a dedicated, pessimistic young scientist disappears only to pop back up as a veteran with a dubious hold on sanity.
Casting issues aside, Hunger is defined by intense, wholly committed performances that create a historical nightmare of increasing intensity.
Leading the charge is John Henry Roberts as Ilya, radiating a gaunt, haunted essence that gives a human form to the horrors of the siege. As Ilya’s wife and co-worker, Alena, Kendra Thulin is an understated powerhouse who provides an almost saintly moral compass in a world where morality is crumbling beneath the weight of increasingly amoral survival tactics. And as a scientist whose sanity gradually erodes under that same weight, Jennifer Tyler personifies the grotesque disintegration of an entire country.
Hunger continues through March 25th at Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood (map), with performances Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30pm, Saturdays at 4pm and 8pm, and Sundays at 4pm. Tickets are $20-$35, and are available by phone (773-761-4477) or online at ovationtix.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at LifelineTheatre.com. (Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes, which includes one intermission)
All photos by Suzanne Plunkett
Dan Granata (Sergei, Pyotr); Peter Greenberg (Vitalli, Government Man, Lysenko); Katie McLean Hainsworth (Efrosinia, Klavdiya); John Henry Roberts (Ilya); Kendra Thulin (Alena); Jenifer Tyler (Lidia); Christopher M. Walsh (The Director, Ivan); Tosha Fowler, Simone Roos, Joseph Stearns (Understudies)
behind the scenes
Chris Hainsworth (adaptor); Robert Kauzlaric (director); Katie Adams (stage manager); Matt Engle (violence designer); Jesse Gaffney (props); Kevin D. Gawley (lighting); Andrew Hansen (original music, sound design); Jordan Kardasz (asst. lighting); Jessica Kuehnau (set); Joanna Melville (costumes); Maren Robinson (dramaturg); Cortney Hurley (production manager); Joe Schermoly (tech director); Suzanne Plunkett (photos)