nytheatre.com review by Josh Sherman
August 12, 2008
I am probably going to run out of superlatives in trying to adequately describe the phenomenal American premiere of Hidden Fees*, a stunning new work from playwright Viktoria Nikiforova and the justly lauded Studio Six company. So get out your online thesaurus of choice and prepare for an onslaught of praise, because it is going to be extremely challenging to find a more perfect production, start to finish, at this year's FringeNYC. If you haven't gotten tickets to this 90-minute gem, I give you permission to buy them now and read the rest of my lavish praise at your earliest convenience.
Studio Six is the resulting organization from the first four-year class of American students accepted at the Moscow Art Theater. The cohesion amongst this true ensemble is worth the price of admission alone, and shows what can be accomplished when talent, time, energy, and resources all perfectly align. Heaps upon heaps of thanks must be given to Anatoly Smeliansky (the head of the Moscow Art Theater School), his committed students, and the entire production team, because they have set the gold standard for ensemble work. Their collective efforts make Hidden Fees* one of the most brilliant, thought-provoking, and rewarding experiences I've had in New York theatre.
First and foremost, Hidden Fees* is a wicked satire about money set in Moscow, replete with its new Western influences. Nikiforova takes uncanny aim at the foibles of capitalism thru the eyes of her idealistic protagonists, the brother/sister tandem of Vasya (Matt Raines) and Liza (Nicole Kontolefa). Vasya is a computer salesman who is trying to invest in some high-end Moscow real estate development. Liza works in television and is also the mistress of Pavel Petrovich (Vadim Kroll), who has a classified high-level job at the Kremlin. Liza has convinced herself to hire a surrogate mother so that she and Petrovich can have a child together and become a family of sorts. Obviously both of these plans are doomed to failure from the start but Studio Six makes it fascinating to watch the plans crumble.
Vasya's undoing comes at the hands of the Eden Bank, who has an elaborate double-cross enabled by consciously funding a dummy development corporation that is destined for bankruptcy. Vasya is seduced by both the promise of making money in the real estate market and his credit officer at the bank, the comely Zhenya (Karen Tararache). Vasya is powerless against either force, and his struggles are charming, funny, and feel completely organic. Liza is ultimately tricked by part-time surrogate mother and full-time prostitute Amanda (Jill Dion), and her blackmail scheme, triggered by Amanda's colleague Ksenya (Alesia Georgiou), is delicious to watch unfold. We are also periodically visited by Jesus Christ (Vansanth Santosham) who comments on the proceedings in an empathetic, comedic and highly theatrical manner—and it magically feels unforced. Kudos go to director Raphael Schklowsky, who deftly maneuvers his ensemble in and out of the winding turns of the script.
Trying to pinpoint highlights of Hidden Fees* is like trying to spear fish in a tsunami. The emphasis is on participation in a genuine and honest theatrical experience, and the Studio Six ensemble deliver in the biggest way possible. Nikiforova should be ecstatic about the terrific English translation that the Studio Six team has provided for her piece, because it is a scathing indictment of the follies in capitalist Moscow. Hidden Fees* also finds much humor among the pathos, and the rich characters that she has developed certainly have more than one reflection of Chekhov in them.
Modern satires truly do not get any finer than what you'll see at Hidden Fees*, in what deserves to be the runaway hit of this year's edition of the Fringe. I cannot wait to see what Studio Six comes up with next.