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See MadLab’s Glowing, Dystopian Allegory ‘Kitezh’ Through December 16

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford See MadLab’s Glowing, Dystopian Allegory ‘Kitezh’ Through December 16Stephen Woosley as Raj, l-r, with Colleen Dunne as Maestra in MadLab Theatre's production of Kitezh by Jennifer Feather Youngblood. Photo by Michelle Hanson.
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MadLab caps 2017 with the world premiere of Jennifer Feather Youngblood’s Kitezh opening last weekend. This rich production, directed by Amy Drake with assistance from Roxy Knepp, makes up for its unevenness with characters that wriggle out of the straitjacket of our expectations and a world that subverts cliche.

Maestra (Colleen Dunne) leads her troupe of entertainers through a desert called “The Middle Path” though Buddha-like enlightenment eludes everyone we meet. The group exists somewhere between rude mechanicals and the USO bacchanalia from Apocalypse Now. Maestra’s second, Raj (Stephen Woosley) executes her direction, guiding Blue (Travis Horseman), July (Kate Jones), Walter (Matt Schlichting), and Lily (Anita McFarren). They find Boy (Dallas Ray) early and Blue’s instinctive humanity nurses him back to life long enough for Maestra to appear and find a use for a true believer.

Kate Jones as July, l-r, with Travis Horseman as Blue, and Stephen Woosley as Raj in MadLab Theatre’s production of Kitezh by Jennifer Feather Youngblood. Photo by Michelle Hanson.

Through dream sequences, we meet Maestra’s cousin Stanhope (also Horseman) who bankrolls this mission using the arts with reward and threat. Some interesting world-building happens in these dreams. Youngblood subtly connects religion and art as things that draw people together and give them hope. She also understands their potential to numb us, the opiate of the masses, to create divisions and drive humankind to atrocity.

Kitezh has a sympathetic hand in Amy Drake and Roxy Knepp. Drake goes broad when she needs to but always leavens the big gesture with something human and more terrifying. I realized in the middle of the second the faux-swearing (“Flipping” and “Jiminy Crow” make several appearances in the first minutes) isn’t bad science fiction writing, it’s a put on, and the apocalypse isn’t as distant as first indicated. She balances the intoxicating tone here, shifting between knives-out allegory and soft-focus fairy tale. That tone also gets a massive boost from Kate Hawthorne’s jaw-dropping set and Brendan Michna’s lighting.

The great weakness of Kitezh is its length. Two hours and 20 minutes, with intermission, feels meandering and blunts the play’s punches. There’s also enough plot it sets up an expectation the plot will hang together in ways by the end I don’t think were intentional. I can’t imagine even the biggest fan of this show wasn’t checking their watch in a few places.

Matt Schlichting (left) as Walter, with Anita McFarren as Lily in MadLab Theatre’s production of Kitezh by Jennifer Feather Youngblood. Photo by Michelle Hanson.

Many of the pleasures here are unlocked in the story Woosley’s Raj tells about the real Kitezh, Russia’s Atlantis made famous to the Western World by Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera. These utopias appeal to humanity’s dream of a golden age prolonged by cutting off from the harsh winds of change and the influences of the outside world.  Youngblood, with Drake and her actors, wields an open-hearted empathy. She understands people who want to believe what’s being sold to them and people who feel like they have no other choice.

The other pleasure is maybe the finest ensemble acting I’ve ever seen in a MadLab production. Colleen Dunne is revelatory as Maestra, playing the weight behind her charismatic leader and the knowledge of what she’s leading them to. Her confessing has the appropriate heft, cracking the world open. The winking almost-S&M relationship between Dunne’s Maestra and Woosley’s Raj is delightful at all turns, as is the triangle between Jones’ July, Schlichting’s Walter and Horesman’s Blue. The audience knows these people like and care about one another enough to walk through hell. Dallas Ray’s Boy subverts his character’s shift from Christ-like figure to poisonous tool of the oppressor and brings new light to this character we’ve seen before. Everyone here balances their archetypal energy while still playing a person.

Kitezh isn’t perfect by any stretch. But there was enough there I loved that I’m still chewing on it. It grapples with the current moment in a way that resists wrapping up in a tidy, tight-cornered package. It’s a great argument for MadLab’s tireless dedication to new work.

Kitezh runs through December 16 with shows on Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. For tickets and more info, visit madlab.net.

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