The National Arts Centre’s English Theatre kicked off their newest season Friday night with Veda Hille and Amiel Gladstone’s foot-stomping new musical Onegin. Based on the verse novel Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin as well as Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s opera adaptation, The Musical Stage Company (in collaboration with NAC English Theatre) have respun this classic tale with some contemporary flair. Despite a killer score and attractive visuals, Onegin, as an adaptation, doesn’t always translate well in 2017 which can result in some confusion about what we are supposed to feel for the titular protagonist and also what to take away from it all in the end. Luckily, our female lead comes through strong and gives us lots to love about this story.
From the creators behind Do You Want What I Have Got? A Craigslist Cantata, Hille and Gladstone say that they “adapted freely from Pushkin’s original and Tchaikovsky’s opera” as a way of giving their audiences the “visceral experience of unrequited love”. The choice of text, I think, is a smart one if not a little challenging given the cultural context in which Pushkin originally wrote this work. Set in 1820s Russia, the story of two individuals falling for one another at conflicting times is one that is still relevant in 2017.
Most of us can probably recall a time in our lives when you were way more into someone than they were into you and that all-encompassing feeling of thinking you’d found ‘the one’. And let’s not forget that, much like the impassioned love letter Tatyana handwrites to Onegin, this generation is no stranger to sending the dreaded drunk text message which is almost certainly defined by spilling your guts to either a secret crush and/or an ex-partner (only to deeply regret those words the next day). That being said, the overall ideas of what constitutes ‘romance’ and ‘love’ have not aged nearly as well.
I am hesitant to write a plot synopsis given that this review is quite lengthy already, so admittedly I’m taking the easy way out here and just going to link to the Wikipedia page for Tchaikovsky’s opera and also Patrick Langston’s review on Artsfile (as he does an excellent job encapsulating The Musical Stage Company’s production in Ottawa) instead. There are some spoilers moving forward, so if you haven’t seen the show yet- proceed with caution!
In any case, Onegin revolves around the title character Evgeni Onegin (Daren A. Herbert), whose ‘IDGAF’ attitude reflects an absurd and existential sense of disinterest that could be taken straight from a novel by Albert Camus. This profound ennui also affects most of the characters, driving their motivation out of the sense of needing to have something happen in their lives (“Oh, Dear Father”), leading to a number of unfortunate events for our principal characters which includes a deadly duel and the tumultuous and ill-fated relationship between Tatyana (Hailey Gillis) and Onegin.
The stage design by Denyse Karn is reminiscent of traditional operas, with tall front-facing wall-flats giving the playing space some much-needed height given that most of its depth is taken up by the live band (absolutely not a complaint), as well as allowing the performers to play in the large window spaces. John Webber’s lighting design is quite sumptuous, particularly the colours used in the St. Petersburg scene- the pinks, greens, and white are very visually appealing. The musicians are, however, without a doubt the driving force on stage. Hille and Gladstone have written an incredible score for the Onegin that fuses the old with the new to create a vibe that feels funky fresh while staying true to its source material. There’s Erika Nielson on the cello (who, in moments of high tension, creates this incredibly eerie sound sliding her fingers up and down the cello strings); Barry Mirochnick tackling percussion and the guitar; and Chris Tsujiuchi who’s responsible for perhaps my favourite musical moment on stage where Olga (Elena Juatco), Tatyana, and Madame Larin (Rebecca Auerbach) are dancing a traditional Russian folk dance, and he’s playing both the piano and a synthesizer, totally modernizing the feel of the entire scene.
I have to admit: as I alluded to in my opening paragraph, I’m a little conflicted about Onegin. While I definitely had a fun time watching the show and the performers on stage, it strikes me as odd that hardly anything in this show brings me to care about any of the characters (with the exception of Tatyana, who we’ll get to a bit later) or to empathize with their struggles. This might be due in part to the fact that there are many songs (“A Love Song”) that go on for quite some time, yet don’t do a whole lot to establish the story’s characters or their motivations (it might also be because there is so much singing in-the-round that there are many times where the lyrics become nearly indiscernible). The plot is supposed to transpire over several years, yet the stakes in this show are somehow non-existent, and this leads to key moments feeling a bit forced or just lacking a dramatic gravitas in general.
A good example of this is the relationship between Lensky (Josh Epstein) and Onegin where Onegin’s active decision to make his best friend jealous by dancing with Olga comes across as unnecessarily cruel because the performers aren’t given enough time onstage as a duo to develop their relationship or a believable chemistry between them. There isn’t any real sense then that Onegin is acting out because he is bored and frustrated with the monotony of his privileged life (and thus taking it out on those closest to him), but rather because he is simply annoyed at Lensky for bringing him out to such a dull party. It then seems a trifle insincere when, in a scene or two later, Onegin tries to convince his friend of many years to call off the duel given that we’ve just seen the very juvenile thought process behind what causes him to make inappropriate advances towards Olga.
Furthermore, the female characters in this show are the literal epitomes of the Mother-Maiden-Whore trope and this is further suggested by Alex Amini’s costume design: Olga (Whore) dressed head to toe in red; Madame Larine (Mother) outfitted in darker earthy colours suggestive of females in the animal kingdom who often have to match with their surroundings as a way to protect their young; and Tatyana (Maiden) in lighter-toned colours in the first act until she is clothed in a pure white gown in the second. The problem with writing that promotes this trope is that the women, such as in this show, become mere objects and/or plot devices for the male characters. For example: Lensky’s ballad about the beautiful young sisters Olga and Tatyana(“Two Sisters”) only describes them as in objectifying terms like the elements of ‘fire and ice’ and of course flowers (‘rose and lily’); Onegin deceptively uses and manipulates Olga as a way to make Lensky jealous with no care towards her thoughts and feelings on the matter. It’s significant to note that there is no scene or aside, as in Tchaikovsky’s opera, where Olga reveals that she willfully dances a second time with Onegin because she believes Lensky is being ridiculous in his jealous state. This is simultaneously an active decision for Olga to make as a female character and a very telling one given that this could be seen as further evidence of the ennui affecting our all of our main characters and not primarily Onegin.
Moreover, Olga (who is given great personality by Juatco) is sadly written out of the story in Act 2 because apparently the only use for her character is as Lensky’s love interest. We’re told through third party narration (i.e. the neighbourhood gossips) that after Lensky’s death Olga mourns and never forgets her poet, but that she moves on and moves out of town to eventually marry a soldier. While on one hand, we can commend Olga for having the strength and the bravery to carry on with her life after such a traumatic event, it honestly just feels like she became an inconvenient loose end for the author.
Another reason why it becomes difficult to garner any sympathy for Onegin as a protagonist is that his entire love story hinges on the fact he only ‘realizes’ he loves Tatyana after she marries another man.This is discouraging for a number of reasons but mostly because it’s reflective of the patriarchal ideology that men don’t recognize or appreciate a woman’s value until another man does. This romantic idea of “unrequited love” is certainly an idea Pushkin explores in his original 19th century novel, making the work a product of its time; but could Hille and Gladstone have taken a stance to either alter the plot or frame it in such a way that shows the discrepancy in social perspectives between now and then? We should be thinking beyond the mentality that, “Isn’t it sad that Tatyana and Onegin couldn’t just fall in love at the same time and be together?”; and start asking ourselves, “Why does Onegin feel empowered to act in such a way that leads him to feeling entitled to women’s bodies?”
Onegin, in 2017, appears to have much stronger links to the effects of toxic masculinity.The duel between Onegin and Lensky, for example, arguably only happens because of an uncalled for show of Alpha-dominant behaviour from Onegin that forces Lensky demand satisfaction as a means to reclaim his manhood, his woman, and his honour. Not to mention, Onegin himself often acts as the epitome of the concept of ‘mansplaining’ where his thoughts concerning a woman’s intelligence (emotional and otherwise) are made abundantly clear (“Onegin’s Refusal”) as he patronizes Tatyana for her love letter and her ‘innocent and trusting’ heart while ‘spoon feeding’ her the classic line, “I don’t want to hurt you”, his manly arrogance blinding him to the fact that this very woman could rise above him one day (and that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned).
This is why Tatyana is such an incredible character and truly saves a lot of this show for me. Played by powerhouse vocalist Hailey Gillis, Tatyana’s journey from ingenue to literal princess is one that anyone who’s ever been soundly rejected by a crush has had at some point in their life. Though she represents the Maiden in the infamous female character triad I earlier mentioned, there are some notable actions that Tatyana takes that definitely set her apart from her more shallow counterparts.
The first comes to us through the song “Let Me Die”, which is dedicated to la petite mort – yes you read that correctly, I mean the orgasm. This is based on one of Tatyana’s principle arias in Tchaikovsky’s opera, so it is kind of reassuring to think about female performers getting on stage and singing about feeling aroused and wanting to experience sexual release for their first time in 19th century Russia. Gladstone, who also directs, further rejuvenates this moment by giving Gillis an electric guitar to awkwardly rock out on about midway through the song (keep in mind that the electric guitar is the embodiment of the Rock’n’Roll genre and Rock’n’Roll is almost always linked back to sexual freedom). I only say ‘awkwardly’ because as it’s happening on stage it appears as if Gillis does not have a lot of experience playing the guitar, which may come across as a little jarring against the expertise of the musicians behind her, but I also wonder if this was a directorial choice for Tatyana as a character who is still trying to figure out the proper *ahem* ‘fingering’ of her own instrument through the duration of the song.
This idea is then further supported by the very next scene where the two sisters and their mother are singing a girly song (“Little Kisses”) that mentions ‘pelting’ men with ‘red currants’ and ‘new cherries’ which, to me, is very suggestive of a certain female sex organ. Am I going too far? Perhaps. All that to say, seeing a woman on stage acknowledging her carnal desires and taking control of how she envisions them being fulfilled is a powerful statement. It’s even more powerful to see that same woman, having matured, soundly reject The One who so cruelly turned her down in her youth (a man who many might argue is the tragic hero of this tale of “unrequited love”) for a much better life with a partner who appreciates her value as an independent woman (“Age Doesn’t Matter To Love”- a questionable title, I agree). This is perhaps the most significant choice she makes in the entire play: while the audience may be rooting for her to “follow her heart” and live out the Harlequin-esque romance with Onegin; Tatyana, realizing her journey has come full circle, reclaims her pride, gets her closure, and shuts the door on that part of her life.
I realize what follows lies more in the realms of personal opinion, so I hope you will indulge me for but a moment: I don’t find it tragic that *spoiler alert* Onegin and Tatyana don’t end up together. When Harris makes Tatyana’s final exit, looking absolutely fabulous, head held high, with Onegin left speechless in her wake I felt a nearly uncontrollable desire to shout “YAS QUEEN”. It’s the moment we all dream of having after having our hearts crushed by someone we’ve revealed our feelings to: to walk into a room and face that person while showing them that you’ve been better off without them all along.
Don’t get me wrong: this is a fun show filled with many talented performers and musicians. Onegin has a lot to offer an audience, which is something I want to stress highly, and this is no doubt due to the seamless blending of traditional and contemporary stylistic elements in both the visual and musical realms of this production. However, it is equally important to address problematic details usually inherent within these older texts and how the present company and their adaptation attempts to navigate them. While some characters still seem stuck in the 19th century and a bit shallow for audiences in 2017, The Musical Stage Company nonetheless gifts us with a powerful female lead who not only counterbalances but ultimately denounces Onegin’s seemingly all-embodying macho self-entitlement. The treatment of this character in particular is one of the strongest elements in this production and should be seen as an example for future stage adaptations of classic literary works. You can catch Onegin playing at the National Arts Centre in the newly minted Babs Asper Theatre until September 30th. More information can be found here.