3 Sisters (WebShow)
Pre-publication version of a review of "Dostoevsky-Trip" and of the "Marquee" column to be published in the Moscow Times November 19, 1999. Any and all quotations of, or references to, these articles must cite John Freedman.
Copyright 1999 John Freedman
In all the posturing that goes on among the hip, the would-be hip and the not-so-hip to come up with something that looks new and real, there usually isn't much to hold your interest longer than, say, an MTV station break or a how-to article in a glossy magazine.
Which brings me right to Vladimir Sorokin's new play, "Dostoevsky-Trip," and Valery Belyakovich's production of it at the Theater Na Yugo-Zapade.
This is the real thing, folks. People here speak a real language and their problems are those real people have. Not to call us all drug addicts, as is most everyone in "Dostoevsky-Trip," nor to say that everybody has the same harrowing experiences they do. But Sorokin has done what good writers do -- he went to the extreme to find echoes of the mean.
Moreover, employing a keen sense of wit and irony, he binds his contemporary characters to a deep cultural heritage. It doesn't matter that he represents the past on an ephemeral level, for it still has its influence -- at least on us as spectators, if not on the characters.
"Dostoevsky-Trip" begins with an overture, I guess we can call it, where tradition and the contemporary world come together.
In something resembling a sterile dark alleyway (designed by Belyakovich), a group of street people drum on large metal barrels. Their initially chaotic sounds grow into a tight, percussive rhythm, Belyakovich's metaphor for the bliss of being high. As they begin talking, we find their repeated references to famous writers comically incongruous until we realize they aren't debating the literary merits of Joyce, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Flaubert or Hemingway; they are sharing stories about the drugs that keep them going until they crash.
"Nabokov," says one, is wildly expensive and "Gogol," says another, is the only thing that brought him out of one bad trip alive.
The addicts, becoming increasingly strung out, have gathered to meet the Dealer (Mikhail Belyakovich). But when he shows, it turns out they can't buy the good drugs he has available. They settle for an experimental mixture, "Dostoevsky," that the dealer's Chemist (Oleg Anishchenko) has concocted.
The trip begins smoothly. Almost to their own surprise, each of the junkies assumes the role of a character from Fyodor Dostoevsky's novel, "The Idiot." There is the femme fatale Nastasya Filippovna (Karina Dymont); her admirer, the wild and passionate Rogozhin (Sergei Neudachin); the "idiot" of Dostoevsky's novel, the pure-hearted Myshkin (Georgy Dronov); plus other bystanders and hangers-on.
These modern lowlifes have no problem slipping into the conventions of an era older and more elegant than their own. At the same time, the Dostoevskian passions -- money, power, lust and love -- mirror the present remarkably.
Belyakovich's actors do not attempt to act out each character strictly according to Dostoevsky's vision. This is Dostoevsky by way of Sorokin, so Myshkin is more intense and Nastasya Filippovna is more trendy. This is where the past and the present collide at a crossroads, giving us something simultaneously familiar and new.
The scene acted out from "The Idiot" is Nastasya Filippovna's birthday party, during which she rejects Rogozhin and momentarily promises to marry Myshkin. More important is that Dostoevsky's characters play a truth-telling game wherein each makes public his most embarrassing moment.
Dostoevsky's game becomes Sorokin's moment of confession. Finally diverging from their literary namesakes, each of the addicts steps out of the crowd and narrates a short tale about him or herself. There is no emotion to the stories; the actors whip through them briskly, letting each shocking event speak for itself.
For Myshkin, it was ejaculating when a stranger in a subway car once grabbed his crotch and blew in his ear. For the meek Lebedev (Mikhail Dokin) it was being forced during the Leningrad blockade to dredge up dead bodies for an unscrupulous "entrepreneur" who made hamburger from it and sold it. For Varya (Galina Galkina) it was sexually molesting and beating her helpless grandfather, a former army general.
These are hair-raising stories, told bluntly, even graphically, with no mincing of words. A few offended spectators march out; the rest of us remain under the spell of art working magic with the horrors of humanity. Sorokin, by first finding common ground among people of different eras and then blowing away the modest comfort that provides, left us in naked confrontation with the cruelties, the paradoxes and the impossibly hard choices that modern life foists upon those living it.
The acting style of the Theater Na Yugo-Zapade is ideal for this play. Belyakovich's troupe is young, energetic and committed. This is not a theater of subtlety, and, maybe not even of depth, but it is a theater of conviction, clarity and power. These actors aren't out to strike poses, they're here to slap you with the truth. I believed every word they uttered.
***"Dostoevsky-Trip" plays Nov. 24 at 7 p.m. at the Theater Na Yugo-Zapade, 125 Prospekt Vernadskogo. Tel. 433-1191. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.***
Benjamin says, "translation is a mode," and that we have to look to the original text's "translatability." A translation, he says, is a "text" that comes "after." It is therefore the responsibility of the translator's "high purposiveness" to realize the language "in embryonic or intensive form."
Maxim Kurochkin is a delectable mystery. A polite, self-effacing young man, he writes outrageous plays that evoke enthusiasm and/or elicit hostility in audiences.
After a two-year run of his phantasmagoric play Kitchen closed at peak popularity last summer, Kurochkin is poised to watch several new works hit the stage. Two In the Retina at the Pushkin Theater affiliate and Imago. Pygmalionium, a production of Pavel Kaplevich and Face Fashion are up and running.
Imago is a complete reinvention of the Pygmalion myth, with a nod to Bernard Shaw, while In the Retina (about which I will write more next week) is a free adaptation of an odd, forgotten story. Kurochkin is true to himself in each play. They are riotously inventive, linguistically challenging, at times dauntingly obscure and aggressively verbose.
A native of Ukraine, Kurochkin must be considered one of Russias most important new playwrights if only because he exhibits such an extraordinary sense of liberated creativity. But he does more than that. This writer catches tigers by the tail. When he wrestles them to a draw, he can be sublime; when he loses control, hold on to your toupee.
Imago, staged by the hot new director Nina Chusova, is something of a 99-car pileup on a fogbound freeway. It has more spectacle, noise and figurative carnage than the brain can possibly process. Chusova in her short career has shown a flair for the grotesque. This time she outdid herself, creating a scattershot parody of everything modern from animated feature films and shoot-em-up TV series to the current spate of musicals.
Kurochkins Eliza Doolittle (Anastasia Vertinskaya) lives in a dump imagined by designer Yury Kuper as the bug-infested square before a stately building after a devastating fire -- and she likes it. Professor Higgins (Vladimir Simonov) is a weirded-out, high-stepping enigma with an ear horn, chasing elusive sounds through the air. His only thought is to rid himself of the pesky Eliza.
But Eliza comes in for a fortune when she witnesses a cop killing a bandit who dumps all his money on her before breathing his last. As such, she is the one who approaches Higgins for a tutorial in proper speech and behavior making him an offer he cant refuse, 1000 pounds a lesson and she is the one who gives Higgins, his nightmarish mother (Alexander Grishayev) and his jittery sidekick Colonel Pickering (Pavel Derevyanko) the real education.
I thought much of the first act was very funny, although I was clearly in the minority among last weeks first night crowd which mostly stared on in stunned silence. Vertinskayas pucky Eliza, Simonovs slinky Higgins, Derevyankos hyper Pickering and, especially, Yelena Galibinas divinely eccentric Mrs. Pierce made a shambles of our conceptions of these characters while doing much to replace them with fascinating new archetypes.
The second act, consisting entirely of Elizas visit to Higgins mother,flew off the handle.
Kurochkin, who allowed his women to bog down in some interminable scenes of batty and slightly dirty girls talk, was partly to blame. What took 30 minutes to play would have been done better in five. Chusovas penchant for the outr also helped sink the ship. She cast a capable comic actor, Grishayev, in the role of Higgins brutish, sexually ambiguous mother, but isnt the clich of the beefy transvestite-as-mom too worn out to tease?
In fact, the author and director seemed at war Kurochkin wrote a flawed but bold play mocking the notion of fashion, while Chusova seemed intent on quoting every trend at hand.
Poking further holes in the leaking hull was Oleg Kostrovs ever-present music -- background static, musical snippets, screams, thuds and clunks. Chusova gave her actors microphones to be heard above the din but this only added the racket of loudly rustling clothes and distorted voices. Much of this show was a sonic nightmare reducing Kurochkins text to the equivalent of a zephyr in a hurricane.
That said, I must add that Imago is not a lost cause. The opening night audience, packed with dour critics and gray heads, clearly was nonplussed. This cast a pall on everyone, the actors included. Even fashion designer Slava Zaitsev bailed out at intermission -- rumor had it he ran off to catch the second act of Chicago. But if, over time, the second act of Imago can acquire some of the chutzpah of the first, this show could be fun.
***Imago. Pygmalionium, a production of Pavel Kaplevich and Face Fashion, plays Tues. and Wed. at 7 p.m. at the Chekhov Art Theater, located at 3 Kamergersky Pereulok. Metro Okhotny Ryad. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.***
I would hazard to say that the most imaginative playwright in Moscow today is a young man from Ukraine. With a history degree from Kiev University and a working background in archaeology, Maxim Kurochkin hardly fits the average profile for a dramatist. But maybe that's what makes him so interesting -- his plays look and sound like no one else's.
Kurochkin is the author of the already-legendary "Kitchen," a wild and woolly play mixing modern Russians and the ancient Nibelungs which played to packed houses for two years and then closed in the summer only because its star, Oleg Menshikov, doesn't like staying with projects for long. Kurochkin, 32, was the winner of a prestigious Anti-Booker prize in drama several years ago even before he had been produced anywhere. His latest play -- "Imago. Pygmalionium," reviewed in this space last week -- is an inventive if uneven work that takes the Pygmalion myth on a madcap roller-coaster ride.
Meanwhile, a few weeks ago, another Kurochkin play opened on the small stage of the Pushkin Theater affiliate with no fanfare at all. "In the Retina" is based on a story of the same name by the mostly-forgotten writer Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, like Kurochkin, a Ukrainian who wrote in Russian in the 1920s and '30s.
It is easy to see why "In the Retina" attracted Kurochkin's attention. It is right up his crooked alley, telling the bizarre tale of a man drawn into the retina of his lover's eye where he meets a host of characters from her past. Kurochkin maintained the tongue-in-cheek irony of the original, adding plenty of his own twists. As directed by Yury Urnov, it is an intimate piece shaded with humor and cloaked in mystery.
The action begins as a voice drifts in from behind us, as might the voice of conscience, admitting that some topics are unacceptable for public discussion. One may be the following arcane linguistic discourse on the use and meaning of words. We are accustomed to separating the functions of eyes and brains, we are told, but, in fact, "eyes are brains." At that, a curtain is drawn back and we see a common scene of a man and woman together.
Nikolai (Yevgeny Pisarev) admits to his sweetheart Nyura (Vera Voronkova) that he has seen the reflection of a man in her eye. And almost before he knows what hits him, he is trapped in a net and confronted by an Interrogator (Konstantin Pokhmelov) who will guide him through what we might call the eye's mind into which he has fallen. He is attacked by a senseless Boxer (Alexei Dadonov), served the strangest nourishment by a Feeder (Vladimir Grigoryev), engaged in stimulating discourse by a Philosopher (Andrei Sokolov) and made inexplicably uncomfortable by a girl named Elza (Olga Turayeva).
Kurochkin satirizes received notions of love, faithfulness and jealousy, but also draws a witty picture of the complexity of human relations. Here is every man's worst nightmare - it seems that gleam in your girl's eye is, in fact, the reflection of a menagerie of her old flames just dying to pull you into the irrevocable past with them.
Kurochkin also plays with the conventions of theater for he understands only too well that the idea of a play inside an eyeball is too weird to be true. His characters break out into an argument about what to do about it - one begs the others to take pity on the spectators, another scoffs rudely and suggests chasing them out of the hall. It is a simple, but funny and effective way to diffuse any sensations of antagonistic confusion that may be arising among members of the audience.
Urnov handled the unreal play nicely, embracing its quirks and seeking ways to create action. On that score, Viktor Pal's set of swinging, twisting nets and sliding curtains is a help. Furthermore, Urnov created a soundscape of interest, often using music to cut back against the grain of action or mood while silences and pauses highlight emotional intensity.
For those used to Kurochkin as the author of megaprojects like "Kitchen" and "Imago," "In the Retina" may seem uncharacteristically tame. It is a small story told meticulously. But the wacky imagination that went into it is vintage Kurochkin.
***"In The Retina" (V Zrachke) plays Monday at 7 p.m. at the Pushkin Theater affiliate, located at 3/25 Sytinsky Pereulok. Metro Pushkinskaya. Tel. 209-1896. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.***
Film-North * Anatoly Antohin
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