By Meagan Cole
One of the most evocative TRC productions since The Laramie Project five years ago, Tony Kushner’s Slavs! opened to the public this week. The play ran its first night on Wednesday, April 10th after a month of preparation, but the audience would never have known just by seeing the actors perform. Thanks to the collaboration of the guest director and the third cast to reunite students and alumni all school year, they have turned a Russian reality into a thought provoking masterpiece of illusion.
Highlighting two of Slavs! brilliant performers, Rachael Karns and Johnny Camacho, the story is slowly revealed. Rachael, a Sophomore originally from Minnesota, says, “Slavs! is about a lot of things, but it boils down to endurance. There are many stories in the play, but each is about struggling with the Revolution, trying to find a way to go on.” Johnny Camacho, the returning Theatre Arts alumnus native to Virginia, further enlightens, “Slavs! is about the death of the Communist ideal in Russia, the Democratic reforms, and the impact it has on the whole culture.”
Such disconcerting themes came with hardship for the characters. Johnny reveals, “My character, who was an orphan, was adopted and groomed for service by the Communist government and struggles as hard as anyone to find meaning when his life is uprooted by the reforms.” Rachael, however, finds a more uplifting outlook in the midst of turmoil, “My character in the play is a lesbian, which was difficult to get used to at first, but [the role] is challenging and rewarding at the same time. Even in death, I feel each character finds peace in their own way.”
Not just the content sets Slavs! apart from usual TRC productions. Its Russian setting had the actors working hard to grasp the harsh beauty of Kushner’s language. “The dialogue in Slavs! is very heightened and theatrical. Unless you’re hanging around an exceptionally bright and poetic group of people, the language won’t sound anything like normal conversation.” Johnny’s take on Kushner is more solidified by the process he and his fellows actors overcame to portray Russians, “I had to take a crash course in modern Russian history to make the names, places, and ideas mentioned in the play meaningful to my character.”
Albeit advanced material, such bold nature is exactly why Slavs! is worthwhile. Rachael agrees, “[Although] it was difficult to relate to communistic ideals, not knowing much about them going into the show, this play is very bold and unexpected. It seems a lot more daring and abstract than anything I’ve ever seen [at Roanoke College].”
What an audience should expect constitutes a lot of the actor’s investment to the piece, and Johnny vehemently advocates this, “Going to the theatre with expectations is always a losing proposition. If theatre is done well, nobody should ever know what to expect from a live performance, including the actors. We’ve rehearsed for many hours so that, on show night, we can trust ourselves to do new things. The audience should NOT expect mindless entertainment. We’ve worked hard to cultivate the entertainment value inherent to the play, but it will still challenge the audience, ask questions, and confront biases they may not even know they have.”
While Johnny is strongly influenced by the method, Rachael finds that emotion will be the audience’s driving force for expectations, “The audience should expect never to be bored, to be thrilled. Expect to be sad and die laughing within minutes of one another, but, most of all, they should expect to re-examine their lives.”
Slavs! is a huge breakthrough on another level as it is Roanoke College’s first production directed by someone outside of Fine Arts professors or students. John Hurley took time away from New York to especially work with TRC, and Slavs! is what he has to show for it. John says, “As a young professional director in New York, you have to create your own work, which includes not only the artistic side, but also the fundraising and producing sides. Here at Roanoke College, it’s very nice to work with such a supportive staff who truly appreciates the importance of arts in education.”
As John directed Slavs!, he had his impression just like Rachael and Johnny regarding overall dynamics. John explains, “I wanted to choose a play with complex themes and dense language that would challenge the students. I also wanted to choose a play of a length and construction that would allow the students to succeed if they applied discipline and imagination to their work. So, I chose Slavs!, a play about love, politics, human decency, and the inherent challenges of virtue and happiness.”
John finishes by reflecting on his time at Roanoke College, “My experience has been overwhelmingly positive; the students are very talented and hard working. They also care deeply about what they are doing. The staff has also been very supportive. Several of the students, such as Shae Kleinschmidt, have truly provided a professional level of work, and I could not be more pleased with my experience.”
Speaking of the Freshman Stage Manager, Shae shares how John has equally influenced her, “John has taught the entire cast and crew a lot about what it means to be involved in a production.” Rachael confirms, “John has been an absolute joy to work with. He has taught me so much and completely renewed my love of acting. I was a little intimidated at first, but I came to love going to rehearsals and have him pushing me as an actress, extending my skill set. I would love to see him come back again. He will be greatly missed.”
Johnny especially took his time with John to heart, “John has been great. He is gifted at working with actors and has shown incredible passion for telling the story. His perspective, as someone working hard to succeed in professional American theatre, is both inspirational and terrifying. I would urge anyone seeing the show to pay careful attention to the visual style of the piece. John has used the actors and the theater space to create some truly beautiful images.”
Shae concludes with praise, “I have loved working on Slavs!. It has been amazing to watch the cast grow into their characters and develop a fantastic story. I have especially appreciated everyone’s kindness and willingness during our rehearsal process. I’m expecting a great show!” Doors to the Olin Hall Main Stage open nightly to mature audiences at 7 PM until the show’s final performance on April 13. Seating is limited and tickets can be purchased at the Box Office.