Breaking String's Gusev is a remarkable, feverish journey through the human condition

In the new play Gusev from Breaking String Theater Company, a group of Russian soldiers are returning home by sea after having completed their service. One might expect this to be a rowdy scene with lots of celebration, but the opposite is true in Graham Schmidt's original adaption of the Anton Chekhov short story, which Schmidt also directs. Illness is rampant among the soldiers. One young soldier, Gusev (Keith Machekanyanga), will likely die soon, which is apparent to everyone but himself.

Gusev spends much of the play engaged in a delirium of memory and feverish visions. The production combines theater, dance, and shadow puppetry as it ushers Gusev through his final days. He longs for home, and memories of his family bubble to the surface. His fellow travelers are not cruel, but neither are they gentle as they discuss his predicament.

For those who have experienced loss, especially those who have seen a loved one's health whither away, Gusev is a remarkable play to see, because it so directly embraces the grief of the human condition. There is nothing gentle about the character Gusev's journey toward death, but the production offers a feeling of universality and even relief as the story concludes.

It is helpful to have read the original short story before seeing the play. While the performance is impressive in its staging and some lines are pulled directly from the story, certain elements, like the apparition of the bull's head without eyes, make more sense after one experiences the short story.

Perhaps with this in mind, dramaturg and assistant director Gabrielle Randle has mounted a display just outside the performance space that is well worth viewing. It offers some context for the story: Chekhov's journey to a hellish prison camp in remote Russia and his long trip back to Russia by sea.

Gusev is an ensemble work, and the design contributions are notable. Ia Ensterä's set of a ship breaking apart partners with Robert Fisher's hull-popping sound design. Erica Gionfriddo's choreography helps move the story away from the realist territory that Chekhov's most popular stage works inhabit and into a hazier landscape (or seascape, in this case) that is more about these characters' experiences than it is a conventionally structured story. Technical glitches tripped up the initial moments of a performance early in the run, but barring that, Julia M. Smith's projection design conveys much of Gusev's journey.

The power of theatre lies in its ability to create a community experience. With Gusev, it is possible to feel less alone in one's grief over our own fragility. These sad, frightening moments are shared, and like a priest blessing the body of the deceased, the production grants these experiences some beauty in the language that Chekhov uses to wrap them in.


Salvage Vanguard Theater, 2803 Manor Rd.
Through Aug. 29
Running time: 1 hour

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Breaking String Theater, Graham Schmidt, Keith Machekanyanga, Ia Enstera

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