To imagine Russia circa-1905, the when and where of Maxim Gorky’s Enemies, think that awkward, transitional phase between tween and teen – except tween in this case is Czarist rule and teen is a Marxist state, which, yes, makes puberty a revolution.
In 1971, the Observer’s Ronald Bryden called Gorky, born Alexei Maximovich Peshkov, "the missing link between Chekhov and the Russian Revolution" and Gorky’s career did indeed straddle the line between two distinct eras of Russian history. The anti-Czarist Gorky witnessed firsthand Bloody Sunday, a demonstration at the Winter Palace that ended with the Czar’s troops firing on the crowd, and within a year, he’d written Enemies.
Enemies, produced by Main Street in collaboration with the University of Houston School of Theatre and Dance, opens in the garden of the Bardin family estate, where head of the household and factory owner Zakhar Bardin is soon to find he’s in for a long day. His managing director, Mikhail Skrobotov, informs him that their workers are threatening to strike if they do not fire their abusive foreman. The lines between the two men are quickly drawn: Zakhar knows the foreman’s propensity toward violence and finds the men’s request reasonable; Mikhail digs in his feet on principle, sure that if they give in to the workers’ demands, there’s no telling where those demands will stop.
Soon, the workers become the topic of conversation for all members of the household, and everyone has an opinion, all running the ideological gamut: Zakhar’s wife, Polina, who shares his thinking in theory, if not always in practice; his drunken brother, Yakov, and Yakov’s actress wife, Tatyana, who is sympathetic to the workers; and Nadya, Polina’s young niece, who stands up for the workers with all the exuberance only an 18-year-old can muster. If Zakhar’s family is a mix of ambivalence, Mikhail’s family is reactionary. His wife, Kleopatra, and brother, Nikolai, side with Mikhail initially, and even more so when violence breaks out at the factory and the army descends on the Bardin estate, searching for a killer.
The problem with Enemies, adapted here by David Hare, lies in the play’s pacing. The action never seems to rise, what little tension is established is never really sustained and the ending is abrupt. So, what makes Main Street’s production, what keeps it afloat, are the performances.
Main Street has proven time and again that they can manage a large cast, which Enemies requires with 20 named roles (and a few more unnamed). Director Rebecca Greene Udden is a master at utilizing the limited space available and the four stage entrances, moving the action across the floor, into the corners and sometimes even outside our view. The production design team – Liz Freese (set design), Eric L. Marsh (lighting design), Margaret Crowley (costume design), Janel J. Badrina (sound design) and Rodney Walsworth (properties design) – also have created a set and an atmosphere that serve the actors rather than stand out on their own, so the actors, wherever they are, command all the attention.
Listening to Marshall Mays’s Zakhar truly is, as Mikhail says early in the first act, “like eating jelly with a fork.” Mays embodies paternalistic benevolence as Zakhar, a man open to reform, liberal-minded, but so blinded by his own privilege that it renders him totally ineffectual and wishy washy, reduced to wandering the stage whining, “Why is everyone mad at me?” He plays opposite Joel Sandel as Mikhail, and the differences between the two men are stark. Sandel brings such intensity to Mikhail (the kind of man who considers there to be a “judicious” use of starvation) that later, when he appears onstage as Captain Boboyedov, a man almost giddy with his own power, the transformation is even more impressive.
Jacob Offen wears defeated well as Yakov, the drunken layabout who chooses to wash his hands of the whole mess rather than be actively complicit, from the first moment he’s seen lying across a bench trying to cover his face with his jacket. But his most poignant moments are the glimpses into his marriage in scenes with Meg Rodgers.
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Rodgers brings a feeling of cool sophistication to Tatyana, her self-possessed, Grace Kelly-like aura contrasting well with the haughty attitude of Jennifer Dean’s Polina, the naivety of Alyssa Marek’s Nadya, and the bitter, singular focus of Kara Greenberg’s Kleopatra.
And bringing a much-needed bit of comic relief is Rutherford Cravens, who plays Bardin family uncle General Pechenegov.
At one point exasperated, the General asks, “What is this, play acting?" And throughout the show, there's a sense of unreality – Tatyana even compares them all to actors miscast in a play. But for a man like Gorky and millions of others, the unrest, the paranoia, the growing call for change – they were all too real. Hare’s adaptation adeptly pinpoints in Gorky’s work the conflicting responses within a single family, all tied together by disbelief and amazement at what’s happening around them. Something that today is also a little too real.
Enemies continues at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; and 3 p.m. Sundays through October 15 at Main Street Theater, 2540 Times. For more information, call 713-524-6706 or visit mainstreettheater.com. $36 to $45.