Shifting Sands of Russian Theatre

Reporting from Moscow’s Golden Mask Festival

The fate of Kirill Serebrennikov—the director of Moscow’s Gogol Center who is on trial for allegedly embezzling government funds intended for theatre productions—hung over the twenty-fifth edition of Russia’s Golden Mask Theatre Festival, which was held from 27 March to 2 April in the capital city. At the curtain call for the Gogol’s production of Shakespeare on 30 March, the company received an emotional ovation when they returned to the stage in white T-shirts emblazoned with “Free Kirill.” Three days later, it was announced that Serebrennikov’s house arrest, which had already lasted nearly twenty months, would be extended for an additional three months pending further review of the evidence. But the following week, unexpectedly, the decision was overturned by a higher court, and the influential theatre and film director, along with his three co-defendants, was allowed to move about the city as the trial continues.

At a session with visiting producers and journalists from around the world, Serebrennikov’s assistant Anna Shalashova described the hearings in Kafkaesque terms, featuring clueless prosecutors with no knowledge about how theatre actually works, hundreds of volumes of evidence with scant connection to the facts, and new charges added and then dropped seemingly at random. While it is widely assumed that Serebrennikov is being persecuted for the provocative nature of his work, no one has the power to stop the circus or even knows who ordered it in the first place.

The Golden Mask is both an awards program and a festival, showcasing the best of Russian theatre created during the past year. Selected by an expert panel of judges who see hundreds of productions across the vast country, the emphasis falls on the more trendsetting works. This year, a few well-known directors, including Serebrennikov and Dmitry Krymov, were absent from the lineup apparently due to scheduling conflicts, which left more room for work from the growing independent sector.

three panelists

Festival curators describe the criteria for inclusion in the Russian Case performance series on the first day. Pictured left to right: Anastasia Pauker, Alexei Kiselev, and Roman Dolzhansky.

The selection did little to correct Russia’s long-standing dominance by male directors. Of the twenty-five productions included in the “Russian Case”—a subset of works presented as a showcase for international visitors—only three were directed by women. And a special pitch session highlighting young directors included no women. Challenged by one of the international guests, the festival administrator Tatiana Deshko said the curators used “objective” criteria and no women rose to the top of their collective list. Other directors in the lineup were more forthright, describing Russia as “a very patriarchal culture.” This might look different in the future, suggested Semion Aleksandrovkiy, artistic director of St. Petersburg’s Pop-up Theatre, thanks to a “young cohort of amazing twenty- to twenty-five-year-old directors where there are quite a few women.”

Nonetheless, it was an unusually wide-ranging festival in terms of aesthetic variety, from tiny experimental efforts produced on a shoestring, to new plays arriving from the provinces, to large-scale Russian classics featuring some of the best-known artists in the country. Journalist Karen Houppert, director Yury Urnov, and I managed to catch a dozen productions. The only Americans in attendance, our trip was sponsored by Philip Arnoult and the Center for International Theatre Development, which has forged connections between Russian and American theatremakers for four decades.

New Plays

For pure political punch, only one production could compete with the rollercoaster drama of the Serebrennikov trial: Dmitry Danilov’s A Man From the Town of Podolsk, which has been the most widely produced new Russian play over the past season. This absurdist interrogation drama perfectly captures the anxieties many feel under the Putin regime. A hapless citizen from the rundown town of Podolsk, outside of Moscow, has been detained by the police for no specific crime. He faces mindless questions by two male officers about his knowledge of his hometown and is forced to participate in a bizarre folk dance to lift his mood. A female officer appears and starts to come on to the prisoner. He resists at first but springs to life when talking about his love of Amsterdam and his involvement in an amateur grunge band. Gradually it becomes clear that the detainee is being called to task for all his negative feelings about the motherland. The officers are coaxing him toward a more meaningful life filled with love and loyalty for Podolsk and for Russia.

All this is presented with irrepressible high spirits in the production staged by Marina Brusnikina at the small but influential Praktika Theatre in Moscow. The setting is a futuristic lighted box with oddly placed openings for humorous entrances and exits by the officers. The young cast members attack their roles with gusto, underlining the absurdist humor of the dialogue—though one can imagine a more realistic approach having even greater impact. The play was presented with a second one-act by Danilov, Seryozha the Dumb, another absurdist drama about the arrival of an unexpected package at an apartment. Three delivery messengers force the recipient, a witless IT manager, to go through a series of disorienting conversations and monologues that upend his sense of reality. Like Podolsk, the setting has a futuristic, installation-like quality. But the themes here are more existential than political. We never learn the contents of the package, which appears to symbolize the unnamable anxieties of Russian life today.

It was an unusually wide-ranging festival in terms of aesthetic variety, from tiny experimental efforts produced on a shoestring, to new plays arriving from the provinces, to large-scale Russian classics featuring some of the best-known artists in the country.

Another original script made a powerful impression, winning awards for best new play and best stage design in a drama. Mikhail Durnenkov’s Utopia is an almost unbearably painful drama based on nostalgia for the recent past. But the achingly beautiful staging by Marat Gatsalov at the Theatre of Nations gives the work a fable-like quality, which sustains the desperate hopes embedded in the script. A well-to-do businessman convinces a middle-aged couple to resurrect a shabby restaurant (named Utopia) that they ran in Moscow during the waning days of the Soviet Union. The restaurant had collapsed because the husband became an alcoholic, his wife left, and their son turned to drugs. Miraculously, all three come together to reclaim the old dream, but pressure from the businessman leads to a new family crisis, climaxing in a stunning scene where the father confronts the son about his homosexuality. The tragic outcome finds the family destroyed and the lonely businessman having lost the one thing that gave his life meaning.

The writing in Utopia is clear and direct, and the cast is superb. But the star of the show is Ksenia Peretrukhina’s set, featuring a large flying mirror through which we view the action taking place on the stage floor. At first the staging attempts to transpose the horizontal action so it appears naturally upright in the mirror, but it shifts to more varied and artful approaches that add to the heartache of the story. When the father and son ascend to a twinkling sky above a desolate little tree, you can bet there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

actors onstage

Water dripped slowly throughout the performance in this recessed window on the set of Potodun River; in the end, the actress climbs into the window, drowning in the flow.

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.

a group of people outside

Audience members read pre-assigned poems that resonate with each location.

Also from St. Petersburg, a street-art company called Theatre To Go brought a promenade piece called Poe.tri to the Golden Mask. Director Maxim Karnaukhov has moved this production around the country, selecting various regional poets and taking spectators on a dreamscape through his or her poems and the landmarks that generated them. For the Moscow version, which Karen attended, the audience met at a suburban metro station where the journey begins. The piece encourages spectators to stop at various checkpoints to read a poem aloud and observe the changing landscape; “Every hero has his own route and story,” Karnaukhov explains. This performance may be the most radical at the Golden Mask in that it takes authority away from a director controlling our experience and gives it to the neighborhood residents and the spectators themselves. Throughout the experience, we audience members talk a bit with this person or that person, step over a puddle, dodge piles of dog mess dotting the melting snow, smile at the toddler in the stroller who stares back—and suddenly we are the performers and the child is the audience. We see words scrawled on buildings and the sidewalk—graffiti or snippets of poems? We see a woman at the bus stop—is she homeless?—but we pay her no mind. Then we see her again, following too close on the heels of someone engrossed on a phone call, and we take a second look. We see a man on a bench taking his shoes off in the snow. Is he a performer or merely pulling a pebble from his shoe? Are all those we pass performers? We look, and look again.

As an audience, we begin to question the neighborhood we are walking through, no longer sure of what we are seeing. Does the noticing itself have meaning? Can a poem, an acknowledgement, imbue this otherwise dreary landscape with beauty because it allows the poet (and her audience) to move around in slippery space and time? Toward the end of Poe.tri, the “homeless woman” who is probably a performer appears in a dirt-encrusted children’s garden that was likely made by residents of the nearby high-rise. The garden consists of painted tires bent and cut into animal shapes. She sings. The song is eerie, mournful. A passing woman, bundled against the cold, groceries in hand, stops and listens—momentarily transported.

If a shift to a new era is underway, it may be less about a changing of the guard and more about everyone, young and old, adjusting to the realities of the long reign of Putin.

Big-stage Classics

For the Golden Mask, the Moscow Art Theatre was given over to two productions from leading director Konstantin Bogomolov, whose work has generated controversy by upending conventional expectations on that venerable stage. His Three Sisters is an intentionally static staging of Chekhov’s classic with mid-century modern furniture inside a lighted tube structure that suggests a child’s outline of a house. The actors are closely miked and the action is filmed by two cameras in the downstage corners, with close-up images projected on huge screens surrounding the house. The director has pushed for a compressed performance style that may be a reference to mid-century French cinema. And it certainly has the effect of sidestepping any old-fashioned ideas about Chekhovian subtext or emotion. This could be intended to provide a fresh hearing of a familiar script, or to deliver a thesis about evolving ideas of “realism,” or to draw historical parallels with today’s oligarch class. But, for my taste, only the oldest actor playing Chebutykin (Alexander Semchev) had enough surface texture to bring the flattened style to life. However, further interest was added by casting a woman as Tuzenbach and by suggesting a relationship between Andrei and a young Ferapont. While gay relationships are hardly new in the Russian theatre, inserting them into a great classic on a historic stage remains a daring statement.

Yury saw the more ambitious production from director Bogomolov, his five-hour The Karamazovs. Much livelier than Three Sisters, the production also uses real-time film throughout. But there is more fluid interplay between the movement of the cameras and the actors, and the acting style is highly expressive. Aiming to strip away layers of perceptual clichés to reveal the heart of Dostoevsky’s novel for contemporary audiences, Bogomolov deploys a wide range of creative tools. We watch a TV report from the Elder Zosima’s funeral; we witness Dmitri Karamazov being violently beat up at the contemporary police station; we hear Soviet pop songs and smell food freshly made on the fancy electric stove right in front of us. Bogomolov actually goes far beyond this, casting an aging woman as the younger Karamazov and replacing family gravestones with toilet bowls (all white except one black for Smerdyakov). His startling strategies are successful in helping audience members re-connect with the characters and social situations. The furious and ruthless voice of Dostoevsky comes through loud and clear as a statement about Russia today.

three panelists

Discussing the trial of Kirill Serebrennikov, from left to right: Roman Dolzhansky, theatre critic and Golden Mask Festival curator; Anna Shalashova, assistant to Serebrennikov; and Evgeny Kulagin, director of Shakespeare currently playing at the Gogol Center.

A Changing of the Guard?

The past year saw the deaths of some revered leaders in Russian theatre, including the two founders of Teatr.doc, Mikhail Ugarov and Elena Gremina; the head of Praktika Theatre, Dmitry Brusnikin; and the artistic director of the Moscow Art Theatre, Oleg Tabakov. Other big shifts in the Russian theatre landscape are afoot. There are rumors that the government will force the consolidation of some of the big companies. An increasing number of leading Russian artists are working abroad, for reasons that the Serebrennikov trial makes abundantly clear. And the independent sector—driven by younger artists seeking to distance themselves from a government support system they view with suspicion—is growing, as evidenced by this year’s Golden Mask. Are we witnessing a changing of the guard?

The curators of the Golden Mask caution against over-generalizing. “Universal conclusions regarding the generational shift in the Russian theatre should not be drawn,” says Anastasia Parker. Alexei Kiselev adds that theatre “absorbs and reflects all the tendencies of the culture,” and he stresses the aesthetic diversity of the current Russian theatre scene as a healthy reflection of the moment. Indeed, we saw productions by directors in their twenties, thirties, forties, and fifties. We saw work that scrupulously honors the text and work that deconstructs it. We saw work in traditional formats and environmental settings.

Veteran Golden Mask curator Roman Dolzhansky offered a sweeping summary of the current Russian theatre climate:

“[It is] theatre pushing the boundaries of genres and ‘formats,’ striving to be both truthful and captivating, seeking new approaches to communicating with the audience, painstakingly attempting to make sense of both historical heritage and modern challenges. In my view, Russian theatre clearly realizes the insanity, aggression, and unpredictability of the modern world, but it still has enough steam and imagination to talk about this with talent, sensitivity and honesty.”

Several international visitors remarked on the prevalence of nostalgic themes in the shows on display, including both older classics and new works looking back at the past. Dolzhansky agreed emphatically.  “Not just nostalgia,” he replied, “but re-evaluation of the past at a moment where we have no concept of the future. All we can do is look back.” His comment suggests that if a shift to a new era is underway, it may be less about a changing of the guard and more about everyone, young and old, adjusting to the realities of the long reign of Putin.

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