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Read the full Globe and Mail "Critic's Pick Review

Orphans for the Czar is a wicked, funny return to form for George F. Walker

Apr 4, 2022

Christopher Allen, Shauna Thompson, Shalya Brown and Michelle Mohammed perform in Orphans for the Czar at Streetcar Crowsnest, running to April 24. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

The Globe and Mail
J. Kelly Nestruck
April 4, 2022

Orphans for the Czar, a comedy that had its world premiere in a cracking production at Crow’s Theatre on Friday, is a dark and funny return to form for veteran Canadian playwright and provocateur George F. Walker.

Do its sympathies lie with the poor even as it refuses to romanticize them? Check. Does it cast a cynical eye on both the state of the world and attempts to reform it from above? Check. Does it have devilish jokes and move at a wicked pace? Check.

Where Walker’s latest wanders hors piste from most of his recent spate of plays is in its setting – from the greater Toronto area of our era to Russia during the revolutionary uprisings of 1905.

The program notes that Orphans for the Czar is “suggested” by Russian writer Maxim Gorky’s 1908 novel, The Life of a Useless Man.

What that means is that the play is a loose-enough adaptation that it’s safe to read the Wikipedia page on Gorky’s long-censored book ahead of a performance and not worry about spoilers.

It begins with Vasley (Paolo Santalucia), a blunt, unlikeable but literate orphan from the provinces, moving to St. Petersburg to work at a bookstore run by a sickly lecher known as Master (Eric Peterson).

Though Master may be deviant and authoritarian to his staff, his shop is a place where would-be revolutionaries such as upper-class sisters Olga (Michelle Mohammed) and Maya (Shauna Thompson) pick up the latest progressive European ideas to match their progressive European wardrobes.

Vasley has been raised – or rather not raised – to have no opinion on anything remotely contentious. He therefore is ripe pickings for the Ministry of Safety, a czarist domestic intelligence organization run by a man named Makarov (Patrick McManus).

Sasha (Kyle Gatehouse), one of Makarov’s minions, is set to recruit Vasley as an informer and is prepared to use muscles or money to do so – but he has little trouble persuading the orphan, despite the latter’s developing feelings for Olga.

Qualms only arise in Vasley when Yakov (Christopher Allen), a fellow orphan for his hometown, arrives in St Petersburg with Rayisha (Shayla Brown), a blind girl he used to read to, in tow – and the newcomers find themselves at the centre of the revolutionary turmoil.

Can Vasley develop a conscience – and should he? Walker paints a picture of a society where the spies at least know their side is not the right one, while reformers are sometimes unable to see past ideology and their own privilege.

Santalucia, the Soulpepper Academy alumnus who plays Vasley, has been a long-time presence in the Toronto theatre scene, but the comic portrait of a self-serving and socially awkward man he draws here should elevate him to the first ranks of the city’s actors.

His dry delivery and wiry physicality is endlessly watchable – and he does a fantastic job of standing both inside and outside his character’s dilemmas. (Indeed, Santalucia’s performance is the equivalent of his wake-up-and-pay-attention work as a director on Casimir and Caroline in 2020 for the Howland Company; I’ve awoken anyway!)

If you’re looking for a play that fully explores the emotional heft of the situations found in Orphans for the Czar – abuse and hunger are omnipresent – you’ll want to look elsewhere.

But director Tanja Jacobs knows how to keep an audience just the right length – an arm? a forearm? a hand? – away from Walker’s provocations and profanities to generate laughter. The historical setting, relevant though this one may be at the moment, helps in that department as well.

Jacobs’s simple, stylish production deftly uses a long staircase and a few rolling tables covered in books to show shifts in stakes symbolically alongside the story. The abstract but playable design is by Lorenzo Savioni.

The cast contains no disappointment, with the formidable talents Peterson and McManus, mischievous and slippery, respectively, in peak form. The younger cast members in secondary characters all find ways to match up with those celebrated elders at one point or another, while Brown, an 18-year-old actor who appears in Sarah Polley’s upcoming film Women Talking, brings some needed vulnerability to a stage full of bravado.

My only qualm with Orphans for the Czar might be that Walker’s plot seems to skip a beat near the end. He enjoys flipping power dynamics over as if they’re chairs in a bar brawl, and a couple of the scenes where this happens aren’t confusing or unbelievable per se, but just fly by too quickly to take them in fully. I would have liked a moment to take a breath to feel the impact of the story. But that’s not really something you get in times of unrest, past or present, is it?