Contemplative Sadness in “Family Happiness”

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Photo credit THEATRE-ATELIER PIOTR FOMENKO

Photo credit THEATRE-ATELIER PIOTR FOMENKO

Based on  the novel by Leo Tolstoy
Directed by Piotr Fomenko
Performances are in Russian with English subtitles

presented by Maestro Artist Management, in association with ArtsEmerson: The World On Stage

Cutler Majestic Theatre
Boston, MA
January 26-27, 2013

Maestro Artist Management Facebook Page

Review by Gillian Daniels

(Boston) Premiering at the Theater-Atelier Piotr Fomenko in 2000 in Moscow, and only in Boston for the weekend, Family Happiness tells the story of the ill matched marriage between Masha (Ksenia Kutepova) and Sergey Mihailovich (Alexey Kolubkov). The plot is a simple one and the pace is quiet, thoughtful, and slow for audiences with short attention spans. For everyone else, Leo Tolstoy’s Family Happiness is a somber prize.

Seventeen-year old Masha is a listless teenage girl. Kutepova utilizes physical comedy to great effect as she expresses the bleak moods and high-flying spirits of a young woman too sheltered to know how little of the world she’s experienced. Masha is rebellious, humorous, and talented at piano and dance. Encouraged by her governess (Galina Tyunina), Masha nurses a strong affection for a thirty-something family friend, Sergey.

Kolubkov’s Sergey is a retiring man, baffled at Masha’s attention and rightfully wary of it. He knows very well that marrying a teenager will ultimately harm them both. Unfortunately, there wouldn’t be a story if bad decisions aren’t made by someone.

The plot of Tolstoy’s original novella features the fathomless sorrow found in the best of Russian literature. This isn’t to say Family Happiness is without joy, as Masha’s courtship is full of awkward hilarity and pleasant surprises. The trajectory of the story itself, though, is not the least bit “pleasant” or, sadly, a surprise. Whatever passion Masha has for Sergey, her prologue makes it clear it won’t lead to the “happy family” of the title.

While the mood of the play, bitter and chilly, matches the Boston weather, the characters are played with warmth. Masha, whatever age the actress is, is a teenager with every laugh, footstep, and eye roll. Her evolution from child to wife doesn’t appear to involve a loss of innocence. Masha’s girlishness is strong and stubborn. Often, she’s also enormously funny.

Sergey is also a comedian but the sort that ends up the butt of a strange joke. He may be the one to return a teenage girl’s advances, but he reaps the full whirlwind of that choice.

Family Happiness is a story of high passion and, perhaps more importantly, high art. It’s worth the experience for those interested in marriage drama and Russian literature, but the casual viewer may find the long pauses long winded. Masha and Sergey gain a few laughs, though, even if the action unfolds with all the quickness of molasses. Like molasses, though, the story of two people disregarding what they need in favor of what they want is sweet, rich, and more than able to ensnare.

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