It's the three of them, going back and forth between acting out scenes from Olga's life, because she fears she is no longer able to act, which leads to discussion of their work and goal as actors and "artists", and the meaning of their lives as part of the human race, particularly in regards to the coming revolution. The play takes place on the morning of Bloody Sunday, in 1905. They fear they are the only three at rehearsal because everyone else in the company was killed in the street.
I'd sum up the play as "striking". It's a dimly lit, precarious, small, thrust stage, three actors on stage the whole time constantly weaving in and out of various layers of reality and "play", where graphic monologues abound and fiery arguments ignite seemingly out of nowhere, although the air does feel thick with revolution. Unfortunately, upon repeated viewings, it doesn't hold up for me, with motivations of the characters as well as choices of the production being called into question.
More and more, I'm finding that my complaint with theatre in general is that we extend this idea of "no right and wrong" past the binary. Suddenly, it has become unwise to take any side, express any opinion, with many productions preferring to present the more artistic choice of "let the audience decide what they think." I don't want the production to tell us how to think, to preach to us, and I certainly don't want the production to claim its rightness, but I do want to see a strong point of view. Neva for me, is representative of political and seemingly controversial theatre as it is today: it's so frighteningly neutral, it's almost pointless.
If I had to agree with anyone in the play, it's Bernstine's Masha, but the other two characters are written throughout to discredit her and belittle her to the point that her rhetoric has no foundation. It's a beautiful monologue, a impassioned plea for the poor and our priorities as a community.
I just think it's an odd moment for a character, in a play, written by a playwright, delivers a monologue belittling theater to an audience that paid to see theater.
Still, like I said, I was floored by the monologue. It was powerful on my first viewing. Bernstine put a lot of venom and vigor into it. With every subsequent performance, despite my questioning of its relevance, I loved watching her deliver it. She kept finding new ways to surprise me, to emphasize different parts.
Here now, I present a transcript of it. I'm going to do my best to recreate how exactly she would do it, using spacing of words, line breaks, and font modifiers. Parentheses are when she hisses a whisper. I omit commas and periods only because, seemingly, she delivered it with none.
Masha, from Neva
There is going to be a revolution and it is going to be so beautiful
The people will sing in the streets and then they will die
Sometimes I think I would’ve liked to have been born a man
I would like to have had hair on my face
and to drink vodka until I drop
and to fight in the street just to see people bleed
and to wear work boots and leather jackets and smoke
and to bathe in the river with the polar bears
to offend women
to have scars on my face
to laugh at my own jokes
to love my own stink
to have tattoos
to have been in jail to have been kicked
to not believe in God
to pee standing up
to sleep in the daytime
to not be afraid
to have burned rich men’s houses
to have raped countesses duchesses princess
to have killed to have lynched to have eaten human flesh to have fought in the war
to have hunted little children
to have violated old women and young girls
I would have liked to be a man I would be happy
So you love each other?
Are you going to get married???
Will that make you act better!!!
The revolution was made for people like you in order to burn you up
How long can one talk about loveI feel like vomiting
Yes!Olga your Anton died and you want to relive his death because you cannot actWHO CARES
Outside it’s a Bloody Sunday people are dying of hunger in the streets and you want to put on a play
History passes by like a ghostthere is going to be a revolution and who is idiotic enough to lock themselves in a theater to suffer for love and for deathI am ashamed to be an actor it’s so selfish it’s a bourgeois trap a trash heap a stable full of maresOlga you are a she-muleNOan ass Aleko you are a disgrace
Pray for me when this city burns and pray for me when the revolution comes that I can die in Siberia pray when they burn your churches USELESSFUCKINGACTORSlazyignorantpretentious-emptypeanutshells rotten tomatoes AlekoOlga if you make it into Heaven watch me burn
Do you want TO PUT ON A PLAY!?!?
How many times can one say I love you?and I love you not?I am TIRED of it!
How many times can you CRY and play truth on stage and be more real and find new symbolsENOUGHIt’s already 1905 and I think the theater is finished
This is not the 19th century anymore capitalism has machines now
You disgust me
(((((I could start by burning this theater I would like to see it burn and with it the arrogance the vanity I hate))))) theater love it’s false gestures it’s crass it’s sarcasm it’s pretentions it suffocates me
Olga I don’t want to work wearing make-UP I don’t want to look PRETTY
Do you want to do something that’s real go out into the street and see the single power of political violencethe end of the regimeit’s so beautifulto kill a generaland to blow up a minister with a bombit smells like ((((justice))))The other actors are not coming they were killedI detest your rehearsed gestures your black tears your gorilla laugh your pauses full of meringue a henhouse full of garbageThere is going to be a revolution and those who survive will be free we’re going to drink we’re going to win wars we’re going to sing at funerals
But OLGA ALEKO DON'T talk to ME of love
Talk to me about HUNGER
Open a hospital march on the street steal weapons kill a general kill a nobleman do something that isn’t an embarrassment for ONCE speak without a lump in your throat
(((Oh my theatermysweetmybeautifultheater love makes me laugh theater is shit actors are shit
Whether or not there’s a revolution the war will end and we will never be free WHY WASTE TIME doing this?????)))))
How can we stand up onstage knowing that out in the street there is a war people are dying bourgeois art bourgeois theatreI hate the audience that comes to feelI hate myself for being an actress
Why are there poor people I want to die I squandered my life wanting to be a peacock and now I am a crybaby a bitter woman I would’ve given anything to have died today to die with the director-Aseph-Sacha-Andre-the ticket seller-Igor and the others I would like to be dead but before I die as I bleed I would say love each other cry-pray-act-laugh
it makes no difference
it’s all the same
What you talk about is ((VOMIT)) to me
And love is sex and sex is our cross our miseryWe are like dogs and you are dogs fornicating onstageYou are swollen stuck together we have to throw boiling water on you to separate you
I can’t stand your smell of powder or your sweet tears
Do you want to suffer while seated comfortable like one suffers in the theater sit in Persia in Turkey in Poland in Manchuria and let war crush you do you want to cry go work in a factory like children do and dry out your lungs with coal soot
But don't come here and tell me that we suffer onstage because we don't
We suffer in life
I hate the audienceThose simpletons who come to entertain themselves while the world ends they come to see cultureTo sighThey should be ashamed they should give that money to the poor people are dying of hunger children lose their baby teeth and new ones NEVER grow in
Actors are shit so vain they think they’re artists but they’re ghosts-pumpkins-dolls
YOU WANT THEATER
YOU WANT TO CRY
I WILL GIVE YOU scenery and tears
we are going to die and they are going to FORGET ABOUT US Love will end the sun will never rise again for anyone Russia will endWe will die and realize
((life was a huge mistake))
But ((please)) stop talking about love
And don’t talk of death because you don’t understand it
Go home or work like the rest of the world and may the theater die with you
In the future when the world ends there will be only movies and the screen will make us cry at Antons at Olga Knippers don’t die my love don’t die my writer write me one –
End of Play)