Two other new works in the festival were adapted from existing sources by small companies far from Moscow. The Pianists arrived from Theatre Globus in Novosibirsk, Siberia. Adapted from a novel by Norwegian writer Ketil Bjornstad, the plot is built on a love triangle among three late-teens who are all competitive classical pianists. But the originality of the production, under the direction of Boris Pavlovich, is the way it depicts the inner experience of playing the piano with minimal use of actual music. The entire ensemble is enlisted for these extended performance episodes, which rely on choreographed tapping and humming. The production is also fueled by a riveting performance from Svetlana Svistunovich-Grounina as Anya, a brilliant but high-strung young pianist who, despite the budding of her first romance, cannot overcome the sexual manipulation coming from her father. In Anya’s climactic performance of Ravel’s Concerto in G, she simply stops playing during the second movement, precipitating the tragic outcome. The highly composed staging and blond wooden floor of the set lend a Scandinavian reserve to the evening, allowing the occasionally fraught dialogue to come through with simple honesty.
From Theatre Poisk in the tiny town of Lesosibirsk came a new adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s 1842 epic novel Dead Souls. Three energetic actors tackle all the roles in the satirical tale about a man, Chichikov, who wanders to various provincial towns to acquire the “souls” of dead serfs still listed on the property registries. Though his get-rich-quick scheme ultimately fails, Chichikov’s encounters provide a lively portrait of middle-class pretentiousness in the period before emancipation. In the adaptation by director Oleg Lipovetsky, three friends discover a copy of the novel at a flea market and begin to read, jumping from role to role with the aid of a convenient rack of clothing. The infectious joy and physicality of their characterizations is enough to sustain the marathon three-hour performance, and I suspect that some contemporary parallels added to the Russian audience’s enjoyment. The overall style reminded me of the late Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company in New York, with its combination of high camp and literary seriousness.
Deconstructed and Immersive Works
Several productions were listed in the festival’s “experimental” category, including deconstructed and immersive works where the story is secondary to the overall experience. The most striking was director Sergei Chekhov’s adaptation of Andrey Platonov’s 1937 novella The Potudan River. Text from the novella is broadcast through loudspeakers in a series of nineteen brief episodes. We hear the story of Nikita, a soldier returning to his father’s home after the Russian Civil War, and his unfolding romance with a destitute medical student named Luba. Simultaneously, on the shallow stage, we see a hyperreal environment depicting the lounge area of a contemporary nursing home where a young nurse and three senior residents silently engage in a series of enigmatic encounters. Sometimes their behavior parallels the Platonov text, and sometimes it diverges. About halfway through, a younger male actor enters the nursing home and the two tracks—the aural and the visual—begin to converge. But the fascination of the ninety-minute piece lies in the richness of the interplay between the two worlds, which remain oddly connected by a dense soundscape, by the abstract bodily images on a small video screen, and by the water seeping into the space, which seems to come from the river itself. The director and his exceptional cast sustain an eerie tonality that rests uneasily between beauty and menace, leading to Luba’s final suicide by drowning.
Dmitry Danilov’s...absurdist interrogation drama perfectly captures the anxieties many feel under the Putin regime.
A more whimsical exploration of a literary source was provided by twenty-four students of the Yevgeny Kamenkovich and Dmitry Krymov Studio at the Russian Institute of Theatre Arts in Moscow. Their ninety-minute work, War and Piece, is a vaudevillian riff on themes from Tolstoy’s great novel. Directed by Oleg Glushkov, the largely physical production unfolds as a series of loosely choreographed episodes with no clear narrative logic but a wonderfully intuitive structure. At a doorframe in a corner of the stage, an actress cheekily introduces the evening as a conventional work of theatre. She suggests a bottle is about to drop on her head, but, naturally, it doesn’t drop until the end. In between, the stage picture expands and contracts through striking arrangements of bodies, costumes, chairs, and props. The first third of the piece sets up the period romantic melodrama, and then an elaborate curtain call gives way to some contemporary dating scenes. Highlights include an arresting contact improv by two men, a Kabuki-style journey with glowing lanterns, and a medical sketch in which a preposterous series of objects are removed from a patient’s abdomen. The climactic episode has the entire cast rolling through a forest of bamboo poles. One can imagine the fun these students had devising War and Piece, but the result demonstrates their discipline and creativity in building on the work of their great teachers.
Among the immersive works in the festival was Carlos Santos’ Mirror by leading Russian playwright Maksym Kurochkin from an idea by Yevgeny Kadomsky. A whole story of an apartment building in the center of Moscow was rebuilt especially for the show, which features eighteen performers but only twelve spectators; Karen and Yury were lucky to snag tickets. The audience begins their immersive experience in a low, dark, womb-like room dotted with leather armchairs drawn up around a “therapist” who talks to them about their dreams. Once the mood of open receptivity is established, a guide invites the audience into a brightly lit adjacent room and helps them don full-length robes, grey cardboard masks, and headphones. Suddenly, each member of the audience is anonymous—and the wild ride begins.
They move through a cozy studio apartment where a couple is having a marital dispute. The audience, strangely voyeuristic visitors to the fraught domestic scene, dodges and darts out of the performers’ way. The guides then steer the spectators into various rooms: a dystopian office with shrunken cubicles and a murderous staff, the bathroom of a health club, a prison visiting room, a children’s bedroom with twelve bunks (where they are invited to lie down and nap amid the stuffed animals and a live cat who roams freely). At one point, they are sent into a dark maze—a kind of fun house—where guides aggressively or tenderly move them around the space and ultimately lie them down on a gurney to wheel them into an autopsy room. Throughout the experience, audience members are on hyperalert, never sure whether the new experience will be gentle or aggressive. The evening ends with all twelve of them at a luscious banquet table laden with a feast from a famous local chef. As they drink wine and dine, the spectators review and compare experiences—in a way digesting the event.