Turn of the century Russia. Young Alexe Popova cannot forgive her step-father’s abusive treatment that culminated in her beloved mother’s untimely death. So she poisons him. But here’s the thing: Samara, Russia is teeming with drunk, wife-abusing, misogynistic husbands. So Alexe opens a brothel and begins her own form of vigilante justice; the men who visit the upscale whorehouse Maison des Reves are not her true clients, no, her real work is seeking peace and justice for their beaten and bruised wives.
In 1909, Alexe Popova confessed to killing more than 300 men in an effort to liberate the women of Samara. This is the fascinating, historical basis for Talie Melnyk’s one-woman show Maison des Reves. While the material is scintillating, the production is informative but rather unexciting. Most notably, there is never any conflict. Even when the authorities are onto her, Alexe does not seem perturbed. Everything seems to come easily to Alexe – discovering her life’s calling, finding her victims and the act of disposing of them. She’s the Dexter of Imperial Russia.
Talie Melnyk is an animated performer and has strong vocal control as she slips in and out of her Russian accented heroine and the modern American narrator. Melnyk also dons over a half dozen other characters, including the booming Russian brutes who enjoy bragging about their spousal abuses. While I see the necessity for these characters, one doubts the believability of them and feels as though the script’s portrayal of every man in Samara (save a detective) as a drunk brute who loves hitting his wife and then bragging about it as perhaps an oversimplification. Did/does such behavior exist? Certainly. But these characterizations lack any sort of depth rendering them rather unbelievable and insufficient foils for our righteous murderess.
Gretchen Cryer’s direction is clean, efficient and well-suited to a festival setting. A thin black scarf serves many purposes and creates a variety of character differentiations and Melnyk moves with a deliberate economy of gestures.
Maison des Reves holds great potential. This is priceless subject matter and I hope Melnyk and Cryer can continue delving into it and create a less simplistic portrayal. The current production is the Cliff Notes version, but the competent team is clearly capable of shedding more nuanced light on this arguably justifiable mass murderer.