To get the full flavor of what the great exiled Russian director Dmitry Krymov does with (to?) Ernest Hemingway’s two short stories, which are hard to see as love stories at all, and to Eugene O’Neill’s play, which doesn’t take place anywhere near a railroad, it helps to have read the texts recently. This is not at all necessary to enjoy “Three Love Stories Near a Railroad,” one of the two shows running in repertory at La MaMa through October 15 under the overall title “Big Trip.” It’s an entertaining ninety minutes full of physical clowning and alluring off-kilter anarchy. But a recent reader can also appreciate how much these flights of whimsy are also knowing adaptations of classic American literature.
It might be difficult as well to understand how much of a treat it is to witness the official debut production of Krymov Lab NYC, if you knew nothing of Dmitry Krymov, the immensely popular and influential theater director who left Russia for the United States on the day after Putin invaded Ukraine. It’s been a Big Trip indeed.
Krymov had nine different shows playing in various theaters in Moscow on that day. But he co-signed a letter protesting the invasion, so the authorities shut down seven of his shows right away; they demanded that the remaining two remove his name. (“A Russian Theatre Director in Exile: Dmitry Krymov starts from scratch in New York” by Helen Shaw in the New Yorker)
The enthusiastic Russian- and Ukrainian-born theatergoers who surrounded me at La MaMa were happy to fill me in about the director’s popular appeal; one pointed to the man himself sitting in the balcony, his rubbery face looking as if he’d just told himself a joke.
This is not the first time that Krymov has taken on American literature, and he does so with much the same approach as he does his classic Russian adaptations – both playfully and knowledgeably; silly and surreal, emphasizing the act of theater making, but also weaving in some poignance.
In Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,”(read the 1927 short story, just four pages long, here), a man and a woman are arguing at a railroad station in Spain, somewhere between Barcelona and Madrid. It eventually becomes clear that he wants her to have an abortion, although the word “abortion” is never mentioned in the story. (It’s interesting to note that Eugene O’Neill also wrote about abortion, in a 1914 play, in which the characters also never utter the word “abortion,” although that is the title of his play.)
Krymov follows the story fairly faithfully, but turning it on its head. In the short story, for example, a Spanish waitress serves the English-speaking couple dos cervezas and Anis del Toro. In Krymov’a version, the couple (Tim Eliot and Shelby Flannery) are served by a slob of a substitute bartender (the hilarious Jeremy Radin) who doesn’t know any Spanish, and only has Budweiser on tap, which he delivers as two cups of shaving cream. Such silliness can be read as spoofing Hemingway’s self-serious tone. But then there are other moments in this scene. Meta-theatrical: The stage manager is ordered to splash the backdrop with white paint, so they resemble the white hills. Metaphorical: Kwesiu Jones dances around Flannery, unseen by Eliot, until the two are intertwined. Together, they can be interpreted as making an oblique parallel between the ultimate act of individual creation, giving birth, and an act of creativity, making theater.
In “A Canary for One” (read the 1926 story, also just four pages long, here), a man tells of an older American lady that he and his wife met on a train trip they were taking from Spain to Paris. She carried a canary that she had bought for her daughter. Her daughter had fallen in love with a Swiss man, but the American lady explained that she ended their relationship simply because the man was a foreigner. The American lady praised the man to his wife, saying that Americans make the best husband. The kicker: The man and his wife “were returning to Paris to set up separate residences.”
Kyrmov doesn’t ignore the irony but seems more interested in mocking American tourists, and goes to town with that canary, especially its feathers. He also builds a hilarious, endless rudimentary scrolling backdrop for the landscape by the train.
Krymov, perhaps wisely, chooses to adapt just two scenes from Eugene O’Neill’s “Desire Under the Elms,” leaving out the infanticide, for example, making it just a seamy sex triangle. We are offered a succinct overview of the relationship between the three characters in the excerpt: The father Ephraim loves his young wife Abbie but hates his adult son Eben; Abbie hates Ephraim but loves Eben; Eben hates Ephraim and Abbie but loves his mother, who is dead.
The summary seems amusing, and the two men walk on stilts, but as their torturous relationships play out, unpredictably, the men dwarfing the young woman seems to be saying something powerful about power.
Big Trip: Three Love Stories Near the Railroad
La MaMa through October 15
Running time: 90 minutes no intermission
Tickets: $45 ($40 students/seniors)
Written and directed by Dmitry Krymov
Production design by Emona Stoykova, lighting design by Krista Smith, costume design by Luna Gomberg, sound design by Kate Marvin, projection design by Yana Biryukova, puppet design by Leah Ogawa and Luna Gomberg
Cast: Natalie Battistone, Tim Eliot, Shelby Flannery, Annie Hagg, Kwesiu Jones, Jeremy Radin, Erich Rausch, Jackson Scott, Anya Zicer