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Game-play, November 17, 2023
This is an unusual one, and one I quite enjoyed. I’m not super familiar with the history and politics of the USSR, but some Wikipedia-ing early on helped provide the context I needed to understand the backdrop that the play’s five characters are operating against.
I love stories with high stakes in the background that choose to focus on how those stakes affect individual people, and that’s exactly what we get here. A strained sibling relationship, a developing romance, and a long-term marriage are all tested by the oppressive political climate. The image of whispering becoming everyone’s normal way of speaking, because they’re not safe even in their own home, was a very effective one. It contrasted well with the spark of finding a like-minded person who you can trust, which is what Agnessa finds in Nikolai. Even then, though, the two can’t truly be happy together, because they have a fundamental difference in what they want out of life. These lines capture their relationship so well:
Nikolai: Agnya, I love you, I-
Agnessa: Do you? Do you really? Or do you love what you want me to be?
Nikolai [pause]: I think you are what I want you to be. You just won’t let yourself be.
(Spoiler - click to show)And ultimately, this love that gives Nikolai a reason to wake up in the morning is what dooms him. In the end, this felt like a story about futility, especially after I played through several times; there’s no “good” ending, no matter which of the two options the audience chooses at each junction point. Agnessa and Nikolai are always going to be caught and arrested. We’re never choosing their fate; each choice is simply one of two equally bad options. The fictional authors of the play have written our choices for us, and they all lead to those authors’ singular chosen destination.
Except… there’s the secret ending. (Shoutout to Manon for telling me about it!) And that provided an interesting twist, where the audience breaks out of the choice binary and demands a different—happy—ending. Which the actors and the play-runner/actor, the Guide, provide, albeit reluctantly. But then, this ending rings so very hollow, as it obviously wasn’t planned; it doesn’t feel true to the story, and it’s impossible to imagine the characters actually living happily after these events even if the NKVD did have a sudden, random surge of compassion and let them go. So we’re back to futility now, inevitability. You can fight but you can’t really change anything. I don’t read that as the game’s universal message, but for these characters, in this situation… no matter how much we, the audience, might want it to end differently, there was always only ever one place they could end up.