Written by Vanessa Rhodes
Directed by Cameron Rhodes
Basement Theatre, Auckland | November 27-December 8
A story about a Russian woman signing up for a mail order bride agency and finding love across the world with a Waikato dairy farmer isn’t what you might expect to see at the Basement. Established theatre actors Elena Stejko, Elizabeth Hawthorne, and David Aston are also not who you’d expect to see at the Basement. However, Where Are You My Only One? is a perfect fit for a venue that has admirably tended towards the raw and experimental.
Where Are You My Only One, as mentioned, revolves around a Russian woman, Yulia (Elena Stejko), who lives with her elderly mother Ludmila (Elizabeth Hawthorne) in Moscow. Desperate to save both her son and mother from a hard life in Moscow, she signs up for a mail order bride agency. Bob (David Aston) sees her profile and the two strike up an affecting long-distance relationship. The story is mature, moving, and detailed; it feels completely down-to-earth even though it’s a story that could be easy to take into the comic or slapstick.
Vanessa Rhodes’s script is flat-out brilliant. She has a great ear for dialogue, mixing in some lyrical and emotive dialogue with more low-key moments, neither of which betray the simplicity of her characters’ desires or the complexities that lie beneath this. Rhodes also captures the minutiae of living in rural New Zealand and urban Moscow with real empathy. It’s her character work that I have to give the highest praise to. It would be easy to fall back on archetypes or clichés with these characters—rural farmer, mail order bride, haughty matriarch—but she brings idiosyncrasies and details to them that really make them spark and appeal.
One of the best things about seeing this play in this space is how intimate it is. It’s not often you get to see actors like these only a metre or two away from your face, and witness their mastery and command over the craft of acting. As Yulia, Elena Stejko is absolutely stunning. It’s one of the best performances I’ve seen all year; she stands somewhere in the middle of a girl and a woman, a girl who just wants a better life for herself and a woman who knows that it just isn’t that simple. Most of all, she makes the audience root for her; she imbues her character with a disarming forthrightness and winning softness that makes us want her to be happy. It’s an earnest, thrilling performance that I just want to throw adjectives at.
As Yulia’s mother, Elizabeth Hawthorne is also stunning. Hawthorne is always a fascinating actress to watch, but seeing her work this close up is an experience unto itself. You can see her face struggling with the character’s contradictions; she also wants her daughter to be happy but knows that it can’t be that easy for her, the road to happiness is full of potholes. There’s a sternness to her physicality that is just as affecting as Yulia’s earnestness, and Hawthorne shades her character in with decades of hard-living that pays dividends for her. She makes a character that could’ve come off as a villain as somebody completely understandable and easy to empathise with.
David Aston winningly plays Bob. Again, it’s a character that could’ve been played as the stock bloke, but Aston’s choices make Bob into a man who has aged out of the classic stoic bloke and into somebody who wants to love, and also be loved.
Cameron Rhodes’s direction is ingenious; he stages the phone conversations between Yulia and Bob as if they were physically talking to each other, but they’re isolated by their own locations. Yulia stays on her rug on one side of the stage, facing towards Bob and Bob stays in his own study, facing towards Yulia. It really cements the connection between these two characters. The play is effectively blocked, especially when it comes to the dance sequences, courtesy of Marija Stanisich. These provide humour, such as when Bob is looking through the mail-order website, but also shade in the relationships between the characters, like when Bob is doubting Yulia’s feelings towards him. The score throughout the play is beautiful as well, drawing from a variety of sources, but is sometimes too plentiful. It is used to transition between scenes and even as underscoring, but by the end of the play it becomes irritating and sometimes heavy-handed. It’s the only sore spot in a play that does pretty much everything right.
Where Are You My Only One? is definitely a worthwhile experience. It’s a mature, affecting story told by actors who are a treat to watch. It’s not often that you’re going to be able to see Elena Stejko, Elizabeth Hawthorne, and David Aston in a space this intimate, so take advantage of it while you can. Don’t miss it!