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The production of George F. Walker’s Orphans for the Czar is fortuitous both in its subject matter and timing. It is set in 1905 czarist Russia, a time of social unrest in a totalitarian country where some people rebel while others remain loyal to the old regime out of self-interest. The czar has his henchmen and spies who want to smother the rebels while some people try to maneuver their loyalty in a direction that will allow them to survive.
Think of a brutal regime trying to destroy a people and a small country and you get a feel for this play.
Orphans for the Czar is suggested by Maxim Gorky’s novel Life of a Useless Man.
The play is set in a poor village and in St. Petersburg where there are serious demonstrations against the czarist regime by people who want food and shelter. Vasley (Paolo Santalucia) is a pathetic orphan living with his Uncle Piotr (Eric Peterson), the village blacksmith. He is treated as an outsider in the village and gets regular and vicious beatings. His uncle sends him to St. Petersburg, and he lives with and gets a job in a bookshop owned by “Master”, Piotr’s half-brother or perhaps cousin who is also played by Peterson.
In 19 scenes (if I counted them correctly) Walker gives us a frightful picture of cruelty and immorality with some rays of decency in an indecent world. Vasley is an innocent boy and what Frantz Fanon would call one of “the wretched of the earth.” On the promise of food and fear of more beatings, he becomes a spy for the czarist police and betrays the people who buy books from the shop where he works. And he becomes a pimp for the Master, the bookshop owner. Santalucia gives a wonderful performance as the abused and pathetic Vasley who has a center of decency in a sea of indecency.
Eric Peterson gives unfailingly fine performances as Uncle Piotr the blacksmith and as the corrupt, abusive, and syphilitic Master. Rayisha, the blind young girl from the village who is sent to St. Petersburg to find work (and played beautifully and sensitively by Shayla Brown) is a beacon of decency and in the end she survives.
Makarov, the chief spy, is a well-dressed, patrician with delicate manners who inspires fear without displaying the violence that he is capable of. Patrick McManus is perfect for the role. Makarov also acts like a chorus and he gives us some information about what is happening in the streets of St. Petersburg.
Sascha is his brutal henchman who is sadistic for the pleasure of it and Kyle Gatehouse is scary in the role. Olga (Michelle Mohammed) and Maya (Shauna Thompson) are educated sisters who are on the side of the rebels, maybe. Yakov (Christopher Allen) starts out as a brute who beats up Vasley for the sake of beating him (but insists that he does it to teach him something), may have more decency than we give him credit for.
In its 90 minutes the play moves through episodes in the lives of the above-noted characters. Does Makarov see the evil in what he is doing or does he run away from his brutality to save his skin? What do the two sisters do to survive? And what is Vasley’s fate? A fascinating combination of circumstances and developments.
The set design by Savoini consists of a dramatic, bare wall that could be the backdrop for executions. There is a set of stairs leading to the Master’s apartment where he gets his visitors and catches syphilis. Three tables with books stacked on them represent the bookshop. The books are pushed off and one of the tables is used to represent other venues like an office or perhaps a restaurant where Vasley gets some food.
Tanja Jacobs does a superb directing job with the numerous scenes and characters. She gets some welcome black humour from the mistreatment of people
Orphans for the Czar could do a great job informing some Russians of their past and waking them up to the present. But they need to see and perhaps celebrate the uprisings against the 1905 regime but they also need to look in the mirror to see their faces today. The Ukrainians of today would understand the play much better if the Russians leave a theater standing so that the play may be produced there.
This production is well-worth seeing.
Orphans for the Czar by George F. Walker in a production by Crow’s Theatre opened on April 1, 2022 and will play till April 17, 2022 at the Streetcar/Crowsnest Theatre, 345 Carlaw Avenue, Toronto, Ontario M4M 2T1.

April 8, 2022

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