July 10, 2013

The Past is Still Ahead (Midtown International Theatre Festival)

In “The Past Is Still Ahead” by Sophia Romma, one of Russia’s most ill-fated and controversial cult poets of the twentieth century, Marina Tsvetaeva, revisits the tumultuously tragic and sexy events of her life-just before she succumbs to “suicide” at the hands of the Soviet Secret Police in 1941 while exiled in Siberia.

The play will be presented by Midtown International Theatre Festival on July 23, 27 and 28 at The Jewel Box Theater, 312 W. 36th Street, 4th floor, NYC, directed by Francois Rochaix.

The six-character play is written in English by the Russian-born NY playwright Sophia Romma (www.sophiamurashkovsky.com ) and is based on a monologue by Israeli playwright Oded Be’eri.

Alice Bahlke (R) as Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva and Tosh Marks (L) as the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke in The Past is Still Ahead by Sophia Romma, to be presented July 2328, 2013 by Midtown International Theatre Festival at The Jewel Box Theater, 312 W. 36th Street. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

“The Past Is Still Ahead” premiered at the legendary Mayakovsky Academic Art Theater in Moscow on April 25, 2007, directed by Francois Rochaix (of Theatre de Carouge, Geneva) and Yuri Joffe (of the Mayakovsky Academic Art Theater). Its American debut was presented by The Past is Stilll Ahead, Inc. at the Cherry Lane Theatre in 2007, directed by Francois Rochaix and Ms. Romma for a two-week run. That production starred Yelena Romanova, a Russian actress of theater and film, as the famous poet and featured other actors from the Mayakovsky Academic Art Theater. Subsequently, the piece was presented at Theatre de Carouge in Geneva (2008), at the JCC in Manhattan in 2008, at the Millennium Theatre in Brooklyn, NY, at the Pushkin House in London, England and at Oxford University in 2009. This is the play’s first performance with an all-American cast.

The actors will be Alice Bahlke as Marina Tsvetaeva, Inna Leytush as Marina Tsvetaeva’s Mother in the afterlife and Bettina Bennett as the poet’s Mother in her youth, Tosh Marks as the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, Grant Morenz as the Soviet NKVD Officer who interrogates Tsvetaeva, Liora Mishelle as Marina’s Muse, and Nuria Martinez as Sophia Parnok. Costume design is by Anastasia Glebova (of the Mayakovsky Academic Art Theatre). Lighting design is by Genadi Birushov from Russia. Sound design is by Dmitri German and set design is by award-winner Inna Bodner.

Marina Ivanovna Tsvetaeva (1892-1941), an iconic Russian poet of the twentieth century, was also one of Stalin’s most prominent victims. Her life reads like a profound, tragic reflection of Russian suffering during the first half of the twentieth century and her popularity is perhaps greater today than ever before. She was inspired by contemporaries like Anna Akhmatova and Rainer Maria Rilke, studied the philosophy of Swedenborg, and blended classical and modern poetry in a unique manner. Her whirling and staccato rhythms were forceful and original. Her lyric poems fill ten collections; her uncollected lyrics would add at least another volume. Dmitri Shostakovich set six of Tsvetaeva’s poems to music.

Set in her lamentable final days in 1941, the play is a series of reflections on her life and a testament to all who suffer great loss under prejudice and oppressive regimes. The play is not specifically about her poetry, nor is it biographical. Rather, it spins off the shards of the poet’s shattered, dramatic life as it was destroyed in a tumultuous period in Russia’s history.

Alice Bahlke as Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva in The Past is Still Ahead by Sophia Romma, to be presented July 2328, 2013 by Midtown International Theatre Festival at The Jewel Box Theater, 312 W. 36th Street. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

The stageplay draws generously from her poetry and letters, including her correspondence with Rainer Maria Rilke in the summer of 1926. ( Tsvetaeva never actually met her cherished Rilke, but their correspondence was an escape for her from the political turmoil and social devastation of the Russian Revolution.) Throughout the play, she consults her Muse, an angelic beauty who softly sings her poetry. She also engages in dialogues with her stern, cynical phantom mother, who ferociously grinds her fingers to the bone on a piano, perched center stage. Tsvetaeva sings poetic madrigals and longs for the end of a rope to cease her misery. Always in need of friends, lovers and the company of poets, she engages in a mystical tango on stage with her raven-haired lesbian poet lover, Sophia Parnok (based on the poem “I’m glad your sickness is not of my will”), which her innocent husband, Sergey Efron, views from aside, in utter distress. In Act 2, she is interrogated by a Soviet NKVD Officer, who appears as a dark presence throughout the play, representing the horror and pressure to which the poetess, Tsvetaeva, was subjected in the culminating years of her life.

Director Francois Rochaix is Founder and General Director of the Theatre de Carouge in Geneva and a world renowned director of operas and plays. Among others, he has directed “La Traviata,” “Aida,” “Nabucco,” “Carmen,” “Cosi fan Tutti,” “Parsifal,” “The Turn of the Screw,” “Death in Venice,” “The Rake’s Progress,” “Pelleas et Melisande,” “Dialogues des Carmelite” and Wagner’s Ring Cycle at legendary theaters including The Grand Theatre de Geneve, The Scottish opera, Opera North, The Lyric Opera of Chicago, The Cleveland Opera and The Seattle Opera. His dramatic credits include “Richard II,” “Henry IV,” “Mother Courage and her Children,” “Arturo Ui,” “A Doll’s House,” “The Game of Life” and “Thunderstorm.” In Moscow, Rochaix has directed “Victor” by Vitrac, “The Event” by Nabokov and “The Past Is Still Ahead” by Sophia Romma.

Playwright/director Sophia Romma (who previously wrote under the name Sophia Murashkovsky) emigrated with her parents from Russia in 1979. Her mother is a Ukrainian Jew and her father is a Polish Jew. Her birth name, Murashkovsky, is Polish but she officially changed it seven years ago “because nobody could pronounce it and called her Marcia Kowalski.” The name she chose, Romma, would have been close to her Patronymic name in Russian, Romanovna. She is a resident playwright of The Mayakovsky Academic Art Theatre of Moscow, where the name Quantum Verse was coined to describe her literary style. The name derives from the question “How authentic is the universe?” and the notion that it may contain parallel dialogues, a simple one and a metaphysical one.

Dr. Romma received her BFA and MFA at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and her Ph.D. from the prestigious Gorky Literary Institute in Moscow. Her most recent play, presented by the Negro Ensemble Company, was “Cabaret Emigre” (Lion Theater, 2012, www.cabaretemigre.com), in which ten Lewis Carroll-style testimonials were performed as cabaret acts by a collection of emigres, from Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Nigeria. Her 2010 production, “With Aaron’s Arms Around Me and The Mire,” contained one original scenario (“With Aaron’s Arms Around Me”) and one loosely adapted from Chekhov (“The Mire”). It was presented by The Negro Ensemble Company, Inc. at the Cherry Lane Theatre. The New York Times (Andy Webster) wrote, “Each play takes a refreshing, almost sideways approach to the subject of ethnic tension.” The review had particular praise for “The Mire,” where a humorless lieutenant is undone by a girl named Svetlana, “who speaks in effervescent wordplay artfully derived from Chekhov, and [the Lieutenant] is ensnared in her enchantments. So is the audience.”

Romma is author of the film “Poor Liza,” directed by Slava Tsukerman (“Liquid Sky”) starring Oscar Nominee Ben Gazzara, Oscar Winner Lee Grant, Barbora Babulova and Gabriel Olds of HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire.” The film adapts a classic Russian story by Nikolai Karamzin about a beautiful peasant girl who is seduced and forsaken by a young nobleman. “Poor Liza” won the Grand Prix Garnet Bracelet for best screenplay at the Gatchena Literature and Film Festival in St. Petersburg in 2000. She has had three productions at La MaMa E.T.C.: “Love, in the Eyes of Hope, Dies Last” (1997), a journey through contemporary Jewish/Russian immigration in a series of eight playlets, “Coyote, Take Me There!” (1999), a surrealistic musical play on the ordeal of immigration and the corruption of the American dream, and “Defenses Of Prague” (2004), a story of the Golem’s revenge on the Gypsies who had stolen his “Shem” or soul, granted to him by God, set in 1968, on the brink of the Soviet invasion of Prague.

In “Shoot Them in the Cornfields,” directed by Russia’s most renowned theatrical director, Yuri Joffe of the Mayakovsky Academic Art Theatre, in 2006 at the Producers Club Theater, a fictionalized family history time tripped between World War II, The Khrushchev Reign, and the heady days of the Coup d’etat of 1991. Her play, “Absolute Clarity,” also directed by Yuri Joffe, is a tale of a teenage heroine-a white raven and rebellious young artist searching for love, absolution and her long-lost fiddler father who “supposedly” abandoned her – was presented Off-Broadway at the Players Theatre in 2006.

In 2005, Romma’s anthology of poetry, “God and My Good” was published by the Gorky Literary Institute. In 2006 her collection of poems, “Garden of the Avant-garde” was published by Noble House, London. Ms. Romma has co-directed her play “Defenses of Prague” with Obie-winner and Tony Nominated playwright, Leslie Lee. She has also directed Mr. Lee’s one-act play, “You’re Not Here to Talk about Beethoven.” Ms. Romma has instructed classes in Playwriting and Screenwriting at the Schaumburg Center in conjunction with Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center, and screenwriting at the New York Film Academy. She is currently the Literary Manager of the Negro Ensemble Company, where she also conducts seminars in memoire writing, poetry and a course entitled, “Hollywood and its Alternatives” for screenwriters. (www.sophiaromma.net). Romma’s retrospective collection of plays, “Foreplay for Broadway,” will be published in 2014 by Samuel French, Inc.


Born into the upper class to an art historian father and a musician mother, Marina Ivanovna Tsvetaeva was groomed by her mother to be a musician, but her defining talent was literary. Her first book of poems was published in 1910; its success brought her into the Russian literary circle. She met and married a military cadet named Sergey Yakovlevich Efron. Her love for him was obsessive, yet it did not prevent her from having affairs, including one with the poet Osip Mandelstam, which she celebrated in a collection of poems called Mileposts. At around the same time, she also had an affair with the lesbian poet Sofia Parnok, whom she addressed in a cycle of poems which at times she called “The Lover,” and at other times “The Mistake.”

Efron sided with the White Russians, so Marina Tsvetaeva moved to the Crimea with him, where she wrote poems between 1918 and 1920 in praise of the White armies and their fight against Bolshevism. She was subsequently separated from him for five years, during which time she became trapped in the Moscow famine, which killed her youngest daughter, and wrote a series of political poems entitled “The Demesne of the Swans.” She also wrote several plays for a close friend, the actress Sofia Gollidey.

Since her husband had fought on the “wrong side,” in 1922, she was forced to immigrate with him to Western Europe, where she created the greater part of her work. Through letters, she developed a lasting friendship with Nobel Prize for Literature poet/novelist Boris Pasternak. Efron became a Soviet spy and eventually had to flee France to escape indictment for the murder of another Soviet agent. The Paris intelligentsia blamed Marina Tsvetaeva for his actions and turned their backs on her. She returned to Russia during the height of the Stalin terror, where her husband was arrested and executed. Consequently, the eccentric poetess and her family fell under a dark cloud of suspicion. She was evacuated from Moscow to the Tartar Autonomous Republic, where she hanged herself in 1941.


The Midtown International Theatre Festival’s 2013 Season runs from July 15 to August 4, 2013 at the June Havoc Theatre, 312 W. 36th Street, 1st floor; the Dorothy Strelsin Theatre, 312 W. 36th Street, 1st floor; the Main Stage Theater, 312 W. 36th Street, 4th floor; and the Jewel Box Theater, 312 W. 36th Street, 4th floor.

John Chatterton created the MITF in 2000, a Midtown alternative to other theatre festivals, as a way to present the finest Off-off and Off-Broadway talent in convenience, comfort, and safety. In 2003, the MITF moved its activities to the current location, the Theatre Building on W. 36th St., where it has been successfully ensconced since. In 2008 the Festival expanded from two theatres in that building to four, at the WorkShop Theater Company and Abingdon Theatre Company spaces. The MITF’s artistic emphasis is on the stageplay itself, and therefore the Festival focuses on effective but minimal production values.

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