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When the Swallows Homeward Fly

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WHEN THE SWALLOWS HOMEWARD FLY

One Day Short Theatre

at Cafe Voltaire

Seventy-five years ago, on July 16, 1918, the Bolsheviks, under orders from Lenin, put a bloody end to a bloody 300-year dynasty: in a basement of a house in Ekaterinburg guards shot the last of the Romanovs--Nicholas, Alexandra, their daughters Olga, Maria, and Tatiana, and Alexei, the hemophiliac heir to the throne. Recent DNA tests have confirmed that the bones discovered two years ago in a Russian forest are indeed the remains of the Russian royal family.

But not of all the members. The two youngest Romanovs--Alexei and Anastasia--were not identified. Anastasia was long rumored to have escaped, her "second life" the subject of romantic speculation. In a 1956 film Ingrid Bergman played her as an amnesiac young woman recruited in 1928 by exiled Russians to impersonate herself.

In Silent Treatment, the first of two one-acts by One Day Short Theatre that make up the 90-minute "When the Swallows Homeward Fly," director-playwright Cynthia Wasseen supplies another sequel. Set 18 months after the assassinations, the play imagines Anastasia as a woman who jumped from a Berlin bridge into a canal. Committed to an asylum, she claimed to be Anastasia, then said she was Anna Anderson. (Twice she went to the World Court, which said it was unable to uphold or dismiss her claim. "Anna" died in Virginia in 1984.)

In her brief and unenlightening play Wasseen portrays her simply as Fraulein Unbekannt ("unknown woman"), a shell-shocked, German-speaking woman with ladylike manners and a commanding air, not to mention an unexplained depression in her skull and vague memories of childhood games and crushed blue velvet. She opens up to Clara Peuthert, another patient, who first mistakes her for Tatiana and is eventually dragooned into carrying a message to the exiled Dutch royal family.

This--and a pointless subplot in which a male doctor and female nurse agonize over his interest in the patient--is the "new light" Wasseen sheds on this story. Silent Treatment, a series of mad scenes in which Gretchen Sonstroem's Fraulein mugs to the point of hysteria, is as fragmented and unresolved as any evidence on the czar's youngest daughter. Why the Fraulein agonizes over her lost crucifix, why the doctor's so drawn to her, why she continues to hide what she clearly cannot are puzzles that Wasseen's slow and skittish staging drain of any mystery.

Like a flashback from this 1920 vignette, Chekhov's The Bear is then presented by the Romanov clan, who actually performed it while under house arrest in Ekaterinburg on February 18, five months before their end. The characters--Elena Popova, a not inconsolable widow; Grigory Smirnov, her merchant creditor; and Luka, her wily servant--are played by Olga, Nicholas, and Maria Romanov.

In this farcical depiction of an unwitting wooing, Elena and Grigory, at loggerheads over her phony grief and his unpaid debts, resolve their squabbles through romance. Inevitably the comedy borrows a heavy load of dark irony from the Romanovs' captivity. However histrionic, Elena's feelings of isolation and imprisonment are echoed in the Romanovs' situation, while the class distinctions that yawn between Elena and Grigory mirror those of the prisoners and their guards.

Unfortunately, Chekhov's farce suffers--not just from the sad context, but from the too accurately amateurish performances in Wasseen's too ponderous staging. Not even trying to suggest a czar playing a peasant, Keith Kupferer gives the hulking, self-pitying Grigory a borscht-belt delivery that's neither funny nor fitting. Margret Anne Tacke's Olga/Elena seems too busy to settle on a portrayal. (The director imagines Olga as confusing Elena's grief with her own real-life remorse over the loss of the Grand Duke Dmitry, but the conceit is precious and irrelevant.) Worse, the outsize reactions of the six other actors generate a live laugh track that makes The Bear seem even more unreal.

After the play the family assembles to create a group tableau, a final photograph for an aborted album. As the Romanovs are bathed in a lurid red light, the guards draw their rifles. I know I was supposed to feel the tragedy of their demise, but after this Bear I could only imagine the guards must have really loved their Chekhov.

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