Russia has been pumping out some fascinating pieces of theatre over the last few years, and thanks to Breaking String, and their New Russian Drama Festival, over the last two years we’ve been getting a taste of what they have to offer. This year, superstar playwright Maksym Kurochkin has allowed Austin to present the world premiere of his latest play, The Schooling of Bento Bonchev, at the Off Centre, and now you can see this wonder for yourselves. Taking place in the distant (but perhaps not TOO distant) future, The Schooling of Bento Bonchev takes place in a world where sex, and indeed love, is thought to be a myth, a schoolyard dream that kids like to fantasize about, like the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy. The play plunges us headfirst into this world, and introduces us to Bento Bonchev, one of the harshest critics of the belief in love, whose world gets turned upside down when a radical discovery forces him to rethink his ideals. Combining a healthy dose of humor with some authentic pathos, the play is a wickedly intellectual satire that will leave you with plenty to laugh about, and think about, by production’s end, and given a fine touch by director Graham Schmidt and his cast.
Jesse Bertron has his work cut out for him as he performs the role of Bento Bonchev. For one, Bento is a character who is seemingly without emotion. Even as his other actors partake in their basest desires, Bento remains steadfast in his beliefs, remaining a stoic, intellectual rock. Despite it all Bertron never plays the part as completely flat, instead keeping something alive behind his eyes, a sense of wonder, a fire that keeps him fighting, even as the world around him crumbles. Though “chemistry” would seem too odd a term to throw out regarding Bertron’s performance as Bento, his kindmanship with many characters is undeniably well-handled, particular his relationship with Joe Penrod’s Professor Terse, a man on the polar opposite end of the spectrum from Bento, and their conversation are indeed some of the highlights of the play.
Many of the most memorable moments in the play come from Joe Penrod, who gives perhaps his best performance yet as the intellectual, but surprisingly emotional, Professor Terse. Though he remains buttoned-down for most of the play’s run, in his last monologue he seems to dig deep to create an amazing moment. Throughout the monologue, Penrod is explosive and dynamic, pulling at our heart strings with alarming aplomb, as the audience watches a man obviously coming to terms with the revalation of what love truly is. Penrod’s performance is more than just the single moment, however, as he shows a skill for diversity throughout, having some of his best moments while drunk, stumbling and slurring while keeping a wide berth between himself and cliché.
Bizarre, intriguing, and endlessly original, Breaking String’s The Schooling of Bento Bonchev is another winner from a company is continues on a healthy roll of good plays, and with this kind of talent at their disposal, this critic doesn’t see their success ending anytime soon. The play may seem too intellectual for some, but after one puts in a little mental work, they’re in for a delightful experience. With fine direction by Schmidt, as well as stunningly minimalist sets by the ever-stellar Ia Enstara and motion design by Flying’s Adrienne Mischler, the crew creates a world that so mirrors our own, but lacks such a significant difference that it will make one think about the role love, and sex, play in our lives.