Big trouble in little Russia: ArtsWest’s diminutive drama packs a punch

Review of The Retreat from Moscow by Michelle K., age 17

The small neighborhood that encapsulates ArtsWest Theatre welcomes me immediately. I get out of the car, stop in an antique store, distract myself with mildewed fur coats, and mill about the quaint streets waiting for 7 o’clock to arrive. After loitering through another 3 or 4 stores, I open the doors to the homey Playhouse, where The Retreat From Moscow is to be premiered, and collect my tickets. The ambience of the theatre is very cozy, almost like a home I have been invited into: ergo “Playhouse”. The walls are adorned with watercolors by local artists, and the ceilings are low, perhaps suggesting the intimate performance I am in for. I sit down in the seat indicated on my ticket stub, along with 40 other guests. Unsure of what to make of the smallness of the whole theatre, I anticipate what action could possibly take place on the stage in front of me. It has a wooden floor, and is level with the audience. Very small - 50 feet by 50 feet - the props the actors have to make use of are but a chair, a table, and a faux kitchen sink. Plagued by HD DVDs and high budget films, I know my imagination is about to be dusted off. Within ten minutes of being seated, three actors enter the room, the lights dim, and the production commences immediately with a queue of wind-chime music.

Therese Diekhans and James Cowen in The Retreat from Moscow at ArtsWest. Photo by Rachel Jackson.

The intensity of emotion between the three characters is made obvious from the get-go. Jamie, played by James Cowen, has come from the city to visit his parents Edward and Alice, played by John Wray and Therese Diekhans, respectively, at their small home in England. As soon as Jamie retires upstairs to take a warm bath after his journey, Edward decides to recede into his literature on Napoleon’s numerous escapades around Northern Europe. Alice, on the other side of the room, throws gazes of curiosity at her husband, provoking the thought to the audience that their marital relationship is struggling to flourish. Ultimately, Edward recite a passage from his book. His recitation denotes the “survival of the fittest” ways of war, and how nastiness and antipathetic actions will take place if one is endangering another’s goal to live. Edward’s reading majorly preludes upcoming conflicts in his marriage and ultimately leads to the decisive question of the play: should I stay for your well being, or should I go for mine? Entangled within the marital tiffs is their son, Jamie, the mediator. He tries to promote compromise between his parents, but in the end, allows his elders to work out their problems as to save himself from possible emotional damages.

The minimalist nature of the set really allows for a key focus on the heavy topics the play meant to portray. A couple chairs and a table are at that are really needed in the play and keep from the distraction of the poetic dialogues of the characters. The actors truly defend the core purpose of the play and are expertly cast. As Jamie, Cowen offers insight into his parents throughout the play that justify his position as a key character with a developed mentality. Diekhans aces the portrayal of Alice and, with only minor defects in her British accent, feeds the spirit of the play with an artistic being and highly humorous yarns of dialogue that lighten the mood at only the most perfect and appropriate intervals. John Wray (Edward) is the shining light of this play. He fuels the entire performance with his uncanny stabs of irony and extremely likable aura. Authentically British, Wray acts in incredible synchronicity with Diekhams. In harmony, this team depicts a painful and dying marriage to a tee.

The whole of the play ties together perfectly. With the undistracting set and the normal day-wear costumes, the raw meat of the play is allowed to be consumed by the audience with knowing. The less that was happening around the actors the more that I could personally come in contact with the dialogue and the character’s surreal emotions. After the play’s end, I felt as if I could truly walk out onto the street and meet Edward and Alice and console them after their (often heated) arguments. The performance, in conjunction with the tagline, “Is love always worth fighting for?” displays a breathtakingly ambitious approach toward the ideals and realities of love; it is surprising that such a little playhouse can contain such emotion.

Michelle K.
January 11th, 2008

Note: This play deals with mature themes, including divorce, infidelity and suicide, and includes graphic historical descriptions of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow. For more information on content, please contact ArtsWest directly.

The Retreat from Moscow

January 9 – 22
ArtsWest’s Ticket Office: 206-938-0339
More info and show times:

ArtsWest is located at 4711 California Ave SW in West Seattle. It's served by buses 22, 37, 51, 53, 54, 55, 57, 128, and 560.

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