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A CurtainUp Los AngelesReview
She incorporated many of her Nebraska experiences in her books, however; especially In her fourth novel, My Antonia, published in 1918, which chronicled the life of an immigrant family, the Schimerdas, trying to make a go of it in a new country. Antonia, the daughter of the family, was quick-witted and ambitious and soon became the constant companion and first love of the "real American" boy next door. That boy, Jim, is the narrator of her story, as well as his own. And both characters can be construed as basic portraits of Cather herself.
Now writer/director Scott Schwartz has taken Cather's novel and made of it a "drama with music," a faithful rendition of the original—--and nearly as long. The lovely and lively Shiva Rose plays Antonia, with Michael Redfield playing the boy Jim and Kevin Kilner playing the James who returns to visit Antonia some 25 years later. Jim, like Cather, went to the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. Then he went on to Harvard Law and to New York, where he became a successful attorney. Antonia, meanwhile, has married and bred seven children (mirroring Cather's own childhood family).
Getting to this optimum point, however, is a long haul indeed. Schwartz' play is set in three acts and runs for three hours, with two intermissions. Fortunately, it improves as it progresses.
The first act which establishes the identity of the 15 actors who play 27 characters, is overlong, tediously simplistic, and confusing. As each of the players march around the stage, they speak not only the lines of their own characters but the thoughts and comments of the young Jim and the older James, who very often appear onstage simultaneously.
As the story proceeds in flashbacks and flash-forwards, it becomes easier to follow. Especially as the Shimerda family and some of their Eastern European friends become more fluent in English and stop speaking in a language that sounds like a pseudo-Russian dialect laced with Klingon.
The Shimerda family gives every indication of having come from Russia, or one of the surrounding satellite countries. But they keep referring to their European homeland as Bohemia, which would put them in Czechoslovakia. Academy Award and Grammy-winning composer Stephen Schwartz, the writer/director's father, composed the incidental music for the play, creating period songs from Czech and Russian poetry. Many ensemble dances created by Stas Kmiec have a definite Russian feel to them. But a glance at a map of Europe will reveal that Czechoslovakia is half a continent away from Russia, and Russia did not invade that country until 1968—-some 84 years after the time of this play. Just part of my general confusion about the origins of this family and the authenticity of their expressed memories.
My Antonia is very much a period piece, getting more and more maudlin as it moves toward its tear-jerking end. But it is to the actors' great credit that one winds up admiring their characters as they move through this very old-fashioned slice-of-life. Julia Motyka as Lena Lingard, Jim's college sweetheart, Karen Landry as his grandmother, and Miguel Perez, as the unscrupulous neighbor, Wick Cutter, warrant a special word of praise.
The Rubicon Theatre in Ventura, as it always does, has mounted this play in a sparse but imaginative setting—-against a backdrop of blue sky, rather than the expected golds and browns of the endless plains. Beowulf Boritt, scenic designer, Steven Young, lighting designer, Melissa Bruning, who designed the costumes, and David Beaudry, who kept things lively with his sound design, all contributed to the prairie ambience.