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Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

June 23, 2017   |   Ithaca, NY

Accent

A walk in their shoes: Civic Ensemble performs staged reading of theater professor’s play about identity

An ex-KGB agent, his crippled son, a former war correspondent turned nanny, wayward teenagers, passion, desire, fear, hatred and bomb construction — these are just some of the many facets of “Lenin’s Shoe,” a play written by Saviana Stanescu Condeescu, assistant professor of theater arts.

“Lenin’s Shoe,” directed by Norm Johnson, associate professor of theater arts, will be performed as a staged reading by the Civic Ensemble, a professional theater company committed to working with Ithaca College students and alumni, at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 15 at the Hangar Theatre.

Taking place in December of 2003, the play follows a former KGB agent-turned-restaurant-owner, Vanya (Michael Samuel Kaplan, assistant professor of theater arts), living in Queens, New York City, and explores his tenuous relationship with his son, Vlady (sophomore Johnny Shea), a testosterone-crazed, 16-year-old paraplegic blogger with a penchant for rap. Vanya must find a tutor for his son while also searching for a way out of his affair with Russian-American waitress Irina (senior Taylor Misiak).

At the same time, Jasna (Jennifer Herzog, lecturer in the department of theater arts), a former Balkan journalist, becomes Vlady’s nanny in order to support her husband Hassan (Dean Robinson), a frustrated poet-turned-limo-driver who speaks in broken English, and her son Alex (sophomore Josh Rivera), a bitter and rebellious teenager who takes a sudden interest in explosives and bomb construction.

The piece tackles the issue of identity, conflicts between generations and moving on from the past. Using the restaurant Vanya owns as a setting, the characters jump these hurdles while also experiencing the challenges faced by Eastern European immigrants in America, including rebuilding lives, dealing with failed expectations and dreams, and searching for a place that they can call home.

The play was one of the first Stanescu wrote in English while she was earning her Master of Fine Arts degree in dramatic writing after immigrating from Romania in 2001, where she worked as a journalist after the fall of dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu and the Communist regime in 1989.

“Since I moved to the U.S., I’ve been interested in exploring living between two cultures and how you negotiate between the old values and the new,” Stanescu said.

The company has worked closely with Stanescu since last year. Herzog, the associate artistic director of the Civic Ensemble and one of the co-producers of “Lenin’s Shoe”, said this is an opportune time to produce the work because it coincides with the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“As a playwright and scholar coming from that background, Saviana is great at telling those stories in an exciting and relevant way,” Herzog said.

While Stanescu has written and produced successful works both nationally and internationally, she said she is still excited and nervous about how the audience will receive what she considers her first professional Ithaca collaboration.

“I’m curious and excited, and hopefully it’s going to go well because it’s important to me to feel that the community understands and values my work,” she said. “That’s sort of an essential thing for a writer.”

The show’s cast is predominantly made of faculty and students, featuring Herzog and Kaplan, as well as Misiak, Shea, Rivera and junior Adam James King, who plays Kebab, a failed suicide bomber.

The only member of the cast not affiliated with Ithaca College currently is Robinson, though Kaplan described him as a friend of many years and stressed the importance of familiarity between cast members in the production.

“You can often end up with a certain sense of ensemble that you can’t experience when you’re just coming in, you’re throwing it up, and then you’re leaving,” Kaplan said.

Johnson, an experienced director of both staged readings and fully realized theater productions, said the most important part of a staged reading is getting the essentials of the play across.

“You have to choose your battles, I guess is the biggest thing,” he said. “What are the things that are most important to getting the story told in the amount of time you have, the top of your priority list.”

Johnson said he had strong faith in his cast’s ability to find this show’s top priorities, such as the characters’ conflicts with one another and their struggles of coming to terms with their new identities.

“With good actors, you need to create for them a framework where they can actually really dive into the situation and character as much as they’re capable of doing,” Johnson said. “The better the actor, the more likely that is to happen.”

Tickets are free. Go to www.civicensemble.org/Home to reserve a spot.