(This review is written by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Claire Christine Spera.)
Say “Anton Chekhov,” and warm and fuzzies don’t exactly come to mind. This is certainly the case with Breaking String Theater’s production of “Gusev,” adapted and directed by Artistic Director Graham Schmidt from the Chekhov short story by the same title.
Based upon Chekhov’s sailing experience traveling home from the Russian penal colony of Sakhalin off the coast of Siberia, “Gusev,” playing at the Salvage Vanguard, chronicles a harrowing, exhausting, bleak 19th century journey — emphasis on bleak.
Titular character Gusev (Keith Machekanyanga) is haunted by what he experiences en route: sailors and soldiers hacking with sickness (Sergio Alvarado, Brock England, Hunter Sturgis and Reagan Tankersley), a priest who gives little comfort (Zac Crofford) and, when death strikes, a sea burial. Those who remain alive do so barely. The audience seating, available on three sides of the stage, is enveloped by th
e wooden planks of an imagined, creaky ship (the works of set designer Ia Enstera and sound designer Robert Fisher work well together), making us feel as though we’re along for the ride, too.
Even Gusev’s sleep is tormented — dreams afford no escape. The nighttime hallucinations feature two dancers in white (Jenny Alperin and Amy Morrow) performing choreography by Erica Gionfriddo. Their silky-smooth costuming ripples as they unfurl their limbs and partner up with Gusev and the sailors, leading them through ruminative gestures.
We don’t get much of a backstory on the characters — who they really are, why they’re here, on this ship. What we do get is told through beautiful black/white shadow-puppet projections (designed by Julia M. Smith), a fitting aesthetic for the dark “Gusev.” With a runtime of one hour, it’s difficult to delve too deeply into their pasts. The story itself leaves something to be desired.
That said, “Gusev” is an escape from the everyday — a hellish reality, but an escape from our world, nonetheless.
“Gusev” continues through Aug. 29 at Salvage Vanguard Theater. breakingstring.com.