Russian Transport – Erika Sheffer and fear of The Other. (Theatre Review)

Russian Transport

Fishy Productions with Darlinghurst Theatre Company.

9 – 31 march. You can grab your tickets here.

Images: Nino Tamburri

It can be argued that America’s fundamental narrative is one of a land stolen from its inhabitants by European immigrants who managed, pillaged and murdered their way to great financial success and totalitarian commercial enterprise. The Dutch East India Trading Company was, at its core, organized crime.[1] Indeed, there are serious arguments that contend America’s true melting pot has been organized crime. In the context of a country built on an economic system of slavery that was eventually deemed to be illegal, is there any wonder that brute force applied to extract labor is at the throbbing core of The American Dream? For Erika Sheffer, it is a tragedy still being played out where it started: with immigrants seeking a better life in America. As young Alex (Ryan Carter) finds, the ideal connections for such activities are not the lure of the slouching cool gangster kids in the street corner. It is in the home, the people who make you feel safe, those who feed your mother who have a “special job” for you to do. Moral reconciliation can come later. Then there is all that racism to justify anti-social behavior. Besides, inside the American social system, it all seems ridiculously easy. The system built on this behavior can never be the one to dismantle it.

Russian Transport comes at a politically sensitive time. Written in 2012, when Barack Obama won his second term, the world seemed to be a progressive and happier place. Crime and immigration could be examined with sensitivity and intellect. Who knew back then, Americans would be contemplating a wall to keep southern immigrants out and NZ would suffer a bloody attack on immigrants leaving fifty dead at the hands of an Australian? Perhaps many of us did. Either way, the changing social landscape has necessitated sensitivity of direction which Jospeh Uchitel offers by way of emphasis on the wolf in the house. As Uncle Boris, Joseph Uchitel directs Nathan Sapsford in a slow malevolent burn of a performance that reveals the ‘immigrant problem’ is easier to deal with inside solidarity and identity with a new America rather than the clumsy refusal or attack we witness today. Young people Mira (Hayley Sullivan) and Alex (Ryan Carter) would find safety in their American identity if it welcomed them more. Parents Diana (Rebecca Rocheford Davies) and Misha (Berynn Schwerdt) would be a better example to their children if they didn’t have to focus so much on money and trying to keep their small family afloat. We learn through Russian Transport, that just as the welfare systems favours those who cheat it, the enormously difficult life of the immigrant is made much easier if thy move toward organized crime.

In this way, Russian Transport is far more than a simple morality tale or an attempt to ‘tell the story’ from an immigrant’s point of view. Under Joseph Uchitel’s direction it is a damning indictment of a country built on slavery, crime and exploitation. For those of us several generations on we are reminded our superiority is ill founded as our forefathers committed these crimes to get us to where we are. This is a system we support by our superior refusal. We become the aspirational right of those seeking the same life today. Designer Anna Gardiner builds a complicated set that allows the characters to move in and around each other avoiding and each other inside of the intimacy of the family home. Lighting by Martin Kinnane is particularly effective in highlighting different areas of the stage as sets for multiple landscapes where action occurs. His lighting in car scenes in particular combined with remarkable performance skills from Hayley Sullivan extends the cast by three. Sound by Benjamin Freeman is appropriately evocative and at times menacing in its support of a dark unfolding story.

Joesph Uchitel has chosen and directs a strong cast and gets stellar performances from each. Rebecca Rocheford Davies is particularly capable as the struggling mother, the opportunist seeking a life for her children, her care turning to abject tragedy and her inability to transform when all goes horribly wrong. This is a precarious role as it’s such a cliché to turn on the mother, but Rebecca Rocheford Davies never lets us forget her power as well as her weakness and it makes for a wonderful character with whom we can relate. Likewise, Berynn Schwerdt is wonderful as the soft-hearted man trying to save those he loves. His task is larger than his experience and therefore errors have to managed by the family, but his inner strength is brought to the fore in the performance and we equally see power inside the caring parent. He is well posited against Nathan Sapsford as Boris, the ‘other’ kind of man. Nathan Sapsford equally puts in a convincing show, shifty, cynical and tired of the hypocritical moralizing that in effect, forces characters like himself into being. Nathan Sapsford finds a complicated depth in his character and turns us away from the ‘easy answers’ and blame we can apportion to immigrants in broad brush strokes.

The battle for identity is played out on the two children. Ryan Carter as Alex is wonderfully forceful. As the malevolence of the production slowly works its crescendo, it is on the face of Alex we sense horror and disturbing realities. His sister, Mira played by Hayley Sullivan is also entirely convincing as the overprotected child, the innocent, everyone in the house wants to protect against the world they know (all too well) is able to cause terrible pain. The children are properly Americanised, second generation virtually, and well on their way to full integration. That integration, we know, that is capable of rejecting other migrants from other countries in order to protect the little they have fought for.

Russian Transport is a powerhouse production and another stand out for 2019 at The Darlinghurst Theatre. In a time when we are all questioning who the migrant is and what they need to be when they are among us, this play comes into our lives and reminds us barriers and walls are useless and The Other is only the reflection of ourselves.

[1] Taken from an article by Kory French. You can read it here.