Lauren Jackson as Olga Larin and Josh Epstein as Vladimir Lensky in Arts Club’s Onegin. (photo by David Cooper)
Generally, I don’t think background research is something that should be required in order to fully enjoy a performance; but every now and then a play really needs context, and the viewer becomes lost without it.
So, I would suggest – even to those with extensive Russian literature under your belts – if you have not read Alexander Pushkin’s dramatic poem, “Eugene Onegin,” start there before you see the musical Onegin. The poem contains descriptions of the characters, homes and countryside that add depth of interest that could simply not be communicated on stage.
That’s not to say that Onegin (pronounced “Onyegin”), the musical interpretation of the poem, can’t stand on its own. The singular creation by Veda Hille and Amiel Gladstone, combining the poetry of Pushkin and the opera of Tchaikovsky, is highly entertaining from start to finish.
The supremely talented group of seven performers, including the Jewish community’s own Josh Epstein, executes so many complex harmonies and moving solos, I certainly wasn’t walking out at intermission.
Set in 1819 St. Petersburg, the poem centres on four main characters: a self-proclaimed rakish womanizer, Eugene Onegin; Vladimir Lensky, a romantic poet; Vladimir’s love interest, Olga; and Tatyana, Olga’s sister, who’s in love with Onegin.
At first, Onegin rejects Tatyana, breaking her heart, and turns his attention to Olga, incurring Vladimir’s jealousy and bringing about a duel. Years later, after extensive traveling, Onegin returns to St. Petersburg and wants to be with Tatyana. But, by then, she’s already married, and Onegin realizes he’s wasted his life chasing women he doesn’t care about.
Taking place primarily in rural vacation homes, these well-to-do look for anything to “deal with the boredom of long winters” and come up with hunting, dancing, dueling and falling in and out of love.
The script includes quite a bit of play-by-play, where explanations of who’s who and what’s going on are interspersed with the action on stage. One by one, we’re introduced, in song, to the characters, with tongue-in-cheek descriptions. At one point, even the details of an impending pistol duel are sung to audience – just in case we were a little rough on the regulations.
These “asides” help with the background and also offer some great comedic breaks, often picking up on the satire that winds its way through Pushkin’s original work.
As an added bonus, guests are encouraged to bring their alcoholic drinks into the theatre and raise a glass for a sip every time someone says lebov (love in Russian). This is even facilitated by the cast handing out cups of vodka during the performance.
But there are also some bizarre non-sequiturs, such as when a singer in what looks like a boudoir is given a mic and electric guitar to continue her performance. Though it provided a chuckle, the reason for that choice went over my head.
While the script tries to provide the context I mentioned, it simply can’t make up for what’s lost from the poem, and I couldn’t help feeling “left out” of the framework.
For example, according to one translation of the poem, Onegin’s house is described: “All of the rooms were wide and lofty/ Silk wall paper embellished the drawing room/ And portraits of czars hung on the walls / The stoves were bright with ceramic tiles / There was no need for these things at all / Because he would yawn with equal distraction / At an ancient pile or a modern mansion.”
This paints such a great picture of the lifestyle and ennui of the main character, but not one that I caught onto in the musical.
Besides detailed description of scenery, the poem delves extensively into philosophical discussions, particularly about love, that would come across far better on stage as verbal jousting rather than a sing-song.
Onegin runs until April 10 at BMO Theatre Centre. Visit artsclub.com.
Baila Lazarus is a freelance writer and media trainer in Vancouver. Her consulting work can be seen at phase2coaching.com.