Describe the Night questions what’s real and what’s not in a mysterious fairy tale about Russian history.

-Brenda Hillegas
PHOTO: Sarah Gliko as Yevgenia, Steven Rishard as Nikolai, and Ross Beschler as Isaac in Describe the Night. Credit: Johanna Austin.

It makes perfect sense that playwright Rajiv Joseph introduces us to real-life storyteller Isaac Babel in the first act of Describe the Night. In this scene, Babel is in the woods alongside Nikolai Yezhov, also a real, historical figure. The year is 1920. They are seen discussing stories- what is considered a lie or just a made up tale. Describe the Night is a believable blur between what is real and what is made up for this play; it’s hard to tell as the story unfolds (at least if you aren’t fluent in Russian history) if what you’re watching actually took place. It all could have, right? Maybe…

Describe the Night follows Yezhov and Babel (strong performances by Steven Rishard and Ross Beschler, respectively) throughout 90 years in Russia- how they connect to one another, how their families end up being intertwine, how they influence and connect to other historical (and fictitious) people, and how Putin’s rise to power can all be traced back to that night in the woods in 1920.

Following along through the decades and trying to think about what’s real and what’s not (you’ll likely end up down a Wikipedia rabbit hole in your Uber home like I did) isn’t the biggest challenge of this show. Instead, it’s trying to praise the actors and performances that really stand out in this show. Truthfully, it’s everyone. This is a powerful cast that need to hold each other up through 12 acts that jump through time in a non-linear fashion. Describe the Night features actors all from Wilma Theater’s HotHouse company- Keith Conallen (as Vova- a nickname for Putin), Sarah Gliko (Yevgenia, who lives much longer here than her real life persona), Campbell O’Hare (Urzula, a granddaughter), as well as Rishard and Beschler.

One of the most intense and anxiety-inducing scenes in Describe the Night takes place early on (and in 2010), featuring Anthony Martinez-Briggs as a car rental employee, Feliks, and a panicked reporter named Mariya (Brett Ashley Robinson) who is trying to escape the sudden dangers outside. They help shape the rest of the story and give the audience the edge-of-your-seat, “what’s going on?” feeling that sticks with you for the entire show.

It also makes sense that so many pivotal plot points involve the deep, dark woods- escapes, conversations, illusions, a plane crash that likely wasn’t an accident, an important diary that’s been missing for years. Fairy tales often find their characters in the woods. Thanks to a incredible set design, these woods are highlighted in the top portion of Describe the Night‘s split stage, maybe signifying that dark secrets (of truth or just something we think we believe in our heads), that hang over many of us constantly. And although many secrets unfold in this show, we’re still left to think about what else could have been lied about or covered up in heated political times.

Don’t miss Describe the Night at the Wilma Theater through February 16th.

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