Mandelshtam (Amphitheatre) 2015 Toronto Fringe Review

In Amphitheatre’s Mandelshtam, presented as part of the Toronto Fringe Festival, a Russian poet (Osip Mandelshtam) criticizes Stalin and winds up in the Lubyanka. The tireless efforts of friends and family are able to secure a sort of pardon, but leave him with a difficult question: can he bring himself to pen a syrupy “Ode to Stalin” and thus save his skin at the expense of his ideals?

The actors are singularly good. Omar Hady (as Mandelshtam) needs to alternate between being an unbreakable marble statue and shattering into a million pieces, but he operates in both modes equally well — simultaneously, when necessary. Bruce Beaton and Tatjana Cornij, in a pair of supporting roles, show different sides of the Soviet state, friends and bureaucrats; supporters and tyrants. A scene where the two (accompanied by Jerry Silverberg’s puppets) embody the entire Soviet Writer’s Union is especially compelling, while a moment with an apple has stuck in my mind.

But while these three are strong, you’re most likely to remember Nicole Wilson as Mandelshtam’s wife. Playwright Rafi Aaron uses her as a foil, turning her into conscience, mother and anchor for a character who might otherwise be too easy, too mopey, too shallow. She’s not trying to get her own way, she’s trying to make him into the best person he can be, and Wilson makes her much more than the central-casting shrewish wife she could easily be.

Designers Marianne Jette (set), Madeline McKinnell (set) and Delia Yuan (lights) take their less-than-ideal synagogue-basement setting and make it work extremely well, especially Yuan’s lighting. It’s surprising what you can do with a bedsheet, a blacklight and a dropcloth — and even if it sometimes gets a little campy, the show has such a rat-a-tat pace that nothing drags on long enough to wear.

But that pace is a blessing and a curse. This show feels like it was written for a full evening, 2.5-3 hours long, and has been slashed to the bone for Fringe purposes. This gives it an eerie, Hall-of-Presidents feeling: the actor standing on the podium reading “ANNA AKHMATOVA” recites a heavily-condensed version of what was probably a much better line in the original text while we bask in what is clearly meant to be a Very Important And Significant Moment which flies by at breakneck speed.

This makes for a wobbly show. I still enjoyed it on a visceral level, but it’s not as deep or as informative as it could be, and I was disappointed in how little this play about a poet went back to his own text and words: maybe they hit a speed bump in translating early-20th-century Russian to contemporary English?

Of course, this is non-fiction: if you want to learn more about this man, and his life, and his works, and the incredible woman with whom he shared his life, you can open a book and start reading. Perhaps this play will serve as a springboard?


  • Mandelshtam is playing until July 12th at the Anshei Minsk Synagogue. (10 St. Andrew St. in Kensington Market)
  • Tickets are $12 in advance, $10 at the door. The festival also offers a range of money-saving passes for serious Fringers.
  • Tickets can be purchased online, by phone (416-966-1062), from the festival box office down Honest Ed’s Alley (581 Bloor West), or from the venue box office starting one hour before the peformance. Venue sales are cash-only.
  • Be advised that Fringe performances always start exactly on time, and latecomers are never admitted. Set your watch to CBC time, and arrive a few minutes early to avoid disappointment.
  • Performances of this play include a live fire and smoke effect. Anyone who would be bothered by smoke should contact the festival to discuss the situation before purchasing a ticket.

Remaining Showtimes
July 02 at 07:00 PM
July 03 at 06:00 PM
July 06 at 07:00 PM
July 07 at 07:00 PM
July 08 at 07:00 PM
July 09 at 06:30 PM
July 09 at 09:00 PM
July 10 at 06:00 PM
July 12 at 04:00 PM
July 12 at 06:30 PM