Onegin is a thrilling meditation on love

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      By Amiel Gladstone and Veda Hille. Based on the poem by Aleksandr Pushkin and the opera by Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky. Directed by Amiel Gladstone. An Arts Club Theatre production at the Goldcorp Stage at the BMO Theatre Centre on Wednesday, March 23. Continues until April 10

      You’re lucky to be alive right now. Do you know why? Because you get to see Onegin. The show isn’t perfect, but Jesus does it have a vision! It’s thrilling.

      Director-writer Amiel Gladstone and musical director and writer Veda Hille have reimagined Aleksandr Pushkin’s verse novel Eugene Onegin as a modern meditation on our compulsion to tell ourselves stories about love.

      Onegin is a dandy from St. Petersburg, “a city built on vanity and silt”. When he visits the country estate he inherited, he meets Tatyana, who lives on a neighbouring property. We’re in 1819, and Tatyana has been primed by romantic literature: “Now I understand those feelings in my books,” she sings. “He has pierced me with a single look.” In the most beautiful song in the score, Tatyana pours out her heart to Onegin: “I must show you all I am. The blood, the bone.” And she is crushed when Onegin brushes her off: “I am not made for this.”

      But the real villain of the piece is boredom. Onegin flirts with another woman: “An insult! Leads to a challenge! Leads to a duel!”

      Gladstone and Hille package all of this in postmodern vivacity. The actors set up a drinking game with the audience: every time somebody in the cast says lyubov, the Russian word for love, everybody will take a shot. Hille leads a three-piece band called the Ungrateful Dead. Actors grab hand mikes and strap on electric guitars.

      As terrific as all of this is, Act 1 presents challenges. In 19th-century Russia, it was a given that young men would fight duels; Pushkin fought several and finally died in one. But that’s a harder plot twist to sell in the 21st century, when we’ve come to expect psychological contextualization, which this show doesn’t deliver. Why is Onegin such an arrogant shit? Why does the man who challenges him become so enraged? Because I couldn’t find satisfying answers to these questions, I admired Act 1 of Onegin more than I felt it.

      But Act 2 lands in loneliness and regret, which are much easier for contemporary audiences to understand—at least, they are for this audience member. Having killed a man, Onegin recognizes the depth of his debasement, and he starts seeking romantic love as a form of salvation.

      In Act 1, Alessandro Juliani, in the title role, nails the character’s narcissism as he sings about how fucking hot he is, but his performance expands in Act 2, in which he makes the character’s longing deeply moving.

      Near the top of the show, the cast sings, “Look around/Look around/Look around/Do you see someone worth dying for?” Well, this whole company is worth dying for. As Tatyana, Meg Roe moves effortlessly from guilelessness to painful self-containment. Vocally assured and physically precise, Josh Epstein, who plays Onegin’s best friend, Vladimir, is a performer of the first rank. And Andrew McNee, who plays a number of roles, brings the house down in a cabaret number in which he poses like a showgirl on top of Hille’s piano. Seasoned pros Caitriona Murphy and Andrew Wheeler, as well as gifted newcomer Lauren Jackson round out the cast. They’re all fantastic.

      Hille and Gladstone's score is a major accomplishment. For all of its strengths, Act 1 gets repetitive musically, but with its recurring themes, the score in Act 2 is tremendously satisfying.

      A massive red velvet curtain, candles, stacks of books, and industrial light fixtures make Drew Facey’s set a fabulous romantic jumble, which John Webber lights with trademark drama. Jacqueline Firkins’s costume designs are so gorgeous they could spark a romantic Russian revival. And, with its quirky hand gestures and Cossack vivacity, Tracey Power’s choreography is a delight.

      Early on, when they’re setting the scene, the actors sing, “Oh dear Father up in heaven, release us from boredom.” With this show, he did.