By Hazen Cuyler
About Love faithfully celebrates Ivan Turgenev’s 1860 coming-of-age novella, First Love. It’s an engaging production, preserving original prose, adding songs, and running 95 minutes. Precise staging alongside a charming ensemble make About Love a compelling way to experience great literature, but ultimately it struggles to overcome disappointing character development caused by persistent narration. Written and directed by Will Pomerantz, with music and lyrics by Nancy Harrow, it’s playing at the Sheen Center through March 22.
While preparing to attend university in the fall, Peter and his family vacation at a large summer home. On the premises is a small cottage rented to a (relatively) impoverished princess, her spellbinding 21-year-old daughter, and their servants. The princess’ daughter, Zina, is worshiped by every man she encounters— including 16-year-old Peter. This is the story of Peter’s first love.
With each scene Mr. Pomerantz’s steady hand grasps our attention, conducting unexpected experiences. Now Peter and Zina are together‚ quiet, held beneath a light silk scarf and inescapable warm breath, surrounded by topsy-turvy drunken adult onlookers. Now we’re engulfed in raucous celebration. Now a solemn Peter lays in tree-shielded moonlight isolation— clutching desperate, fading memories.
Jeffrey Kringer (Peter) and Silvia Bond (Zina) portray singular roles while the rest of the ensemble alternates between three characters each. The novella and play consist of Peter’s account of events: Mr. Pomerantz assigns narration to ensemble members who communicate— as either the voice of Peter or as the voice of their own character— directly to the audience while scenes play out simultaneously. In one instance, surrounded by adoring men, Zina playfully smacks suitors over the heads with flowers while narrating her own action. While only momentary, the pattern continues throughout the production’s entirety, trapping actors into commenting on circumstances rather than fully experiencing them. Placing distance not only between the actors and their characters, but also between audience and the play’s reality.
Mr. Pomerantz’s dynamic compositions are further dampened by a desire to charm. A talented ensemble is led not through the depths of Turgenev’s entangled circumstances but toward a more shallow mirage in order to entertain. In nearly every ensemble member’s narration, their character’s circumstances are sacrificed to communicate an appealing story. In the previously mentioned Peter/Zina scarf scene, we don’t experience characters immersed in a drunken utopia but actors standing, happily telling Peter’s story without any specific characterization. The problem stems from a structural requirement of the play itself: Peter’s narration is shared among the ensemble while they must simultaneously embody their own characters in the scene. You can imagine how confused an actor might become while portraying two characters at the exact same time. The production’s priority becomes telling the story with charm, by default, which sacrifices characterization on stage.
Song and melody heighten theatrical presentation: Ms. Harrow’s sharp lyrics offer character insight while remaining neutral enough to leave Turgenev’s prose undisturbed. Her varied work— arranged and orchestrated by Owen Broder, Daniel Dickinson, and Alphonso Horne— enhances the production’s enjoyment. The titular song, “About Love,” roars into jazzy ‘20s Americana. The lively “Life is Short,” celebrates Russian-influenced melancholy. Peter lays in isolation as a “A Storm is Brewing” swells, following a lively night’s intoxication.
Youth’s journey from adolescence to adulthood anchors Jeffrey Kringer’s Peter. At 16 he’s alone, naive, and stumbling, while unsettled love aches within his chest. Four years down the road he’s wearing a more protective skin while horseback riding alongside his father, mistrust having guided him to the kind of maturity learned from having something forever broken.
Silvia Bond’s Zina holds every man under her spell with subtle magic but less capriciousness than Turgenev may have intended. Regardless, you never doubt her ability to captivate. The rest of the ensemble features Helen Coxe, Dan Domingues, Tom Patterson, and Jean Tafler.
This is Turgenev’s most autobiographical story. About Love is not about the attainment of love. It is about our desire to pursue love. It is about a profound connection to unrequited First Love— something that stays in our cells forever. The play is a voyage traversing awkwardness and pain but never stopping for regret. It is a mirror mocking possession and reflecting back only pursuit. Whether glimpsed or realized, Turgenev (and the artists giving us this work) tell us it is love which moves us forward. And the memory of its first encounter stays with us forever.
Photos: Russ Rowland
Presented by Culture Project
Through March 22 at The Sheen Center – 18 Bleecker Street, NYC