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Theater Under Threat

“All“ and “OnGogol's Moon“ are two unusual and creative entries inthe Golden Mask's Experiment Competition. But their future isuncertain.

The Moscow Times

Passing pleasures are noless pleasurable for their brevity. Still, there are some things you'd like tosee last alittle longer.
Consider “All,” atypically unorthodox production atthe Ten Theater, which provides aneccentric look atthe myths ofAlexander Pushkin and Nikolai Gogol inRussian culture. Upfor anaward inthe Experiment Competition ofthe Golden Mask Festival, which iscurrently underway inMoscow, this quirky mix oflive acting, film and animation has been performed just nine times but its future isuncertain.
And consider „OnGogol's Moon,” anidiosyncratic take onGogol's life and work that has been performed four times atthe Shchepkin Museum. The administration ofthe museum, currently under reconstruction, has not decided whether tomake its pristine, empty halls available tothe show's company for further performances.
It would beashame tolose either one ofthese unusual productions, which purposefully stray asfar from the mainstream asthey possibly can.
„OnGogol's Moon,” subtitled Playing the Classics, No.1, isasometimes dreamy, sometimes jarring fantasy onthemes that have been associated with Gogol for over acentury and ahalf. The text consists ofexcerpts drawn from Gogol's works mixed with snippets ofliterary criticism, songs, acontemporary story byViktoria Tokareva and even anastrological forecast. The show commences long before itbegins, asactors dance gracefully through the empty rooms ofthe museum, occasionally approaching spectators inthe coatroom ortheater cafe inthe basement towhisper revelations about Gogol. Meanwhile, ananimated film ofGogol portraits morphing into the Mona Lisa orother grimacing orlaughing faces isprojected onthe cafe's back wall. When spectators finally take their seats inthe main performance room upstairs, they are greeted byascowling figure inanovercoat (Yulia Bogdanovich), snapping aswitch inthe air every few moments.
Director Anatoly Ledukhovsky pulled together ashow that explores and seeks todefend everything that isstrange, obnoxious, sickly and obscure inthe creative temperament. Gogol's Madman (Yelena Voronchikhina), from “The Notes ofaMadman,” isassailed bythe threatening figure inthe overcoat perhaps, atthis moment, asadistic guard inanasylum while inalater scene the great 19th-century Russian actor Mikhail Shchepkin (Ildar Allabirdin) encourages Gogol toscorn the wrath ofthe public, for their wrath isthe very proof ofhis success asawriter. Acharacter identified asGogol-Mogol (Maria Galkina), the Russian for eggnog, sings lilting, melodic songs with off-kilter lyrics creating the impression ofaworld inwhich the fabric ofreality isonthe verge ofripping wide open. Itisaterritory that isboth puzzling and appealing. Adrowned woman seeking revenge (Olesya Mozdir) from Gogol's story “AMay Night, orthe Drowned Woman” morphs into acontemporary girl spurned inlove. These women, like other spectral characters coming and going inLedukhovsky's Gogolian universe, are poised onthe brink ofoblivion, struggling tomake life mean something bytelling oracting out stories about it.
The performance takes place inabare, white room with doors totwo other rooms occasionally opening todeliver orswallow upthe transient actors. Lighting isoften provided byactors carrying candles orspotlights that create monstrous and funny shadows crawling upand down the walls.
Gogol's world, which has been one ofthe most curious inall ofRussian literature ever since itappeared nearly 180 years ago, emerges inLedukhovsky's interpretation asone that issurreal but, paradoxically perhaps, not bizarre. Everything inthis constantly shifting tale isfamiliar madmen set upon bythose intending toheal them; dreamers brought back toearth bypeople demanding clarity and practicality; discarded lovers and other sinned-against individuals plotting revenge orrelease. Isn't this the world asweknow it? But Ledukhovsky brings ittousindelicately skewed form, stories breaking off unfinished and running into others with which they seem tohave nothing incommon.
“All” isamultimedia performance piece employing the work's actual author onstage asaplaywright (Sergei Kokovkin), arespected poet asanaccomplished poet (Lev Rubinshtein), atheater administrator impersonating atheater administrator (Alexei Shashilov), the theater's managing director (Maya Krasnopolskaya) inthe role ofatheater manager and agenuine famous actor (Nikolai Fomenko) playing the role ofagenuinely famous actor playing the role ofPushkin 30 years after hewas supposed tohave been killed but was not. Throw inthe participation ofPushkin and Gogol aspuppets and characters inananimated film plus, byway ofvideotaped conversations, ahost offamous theater personalities having their say onwhat this play may mean and how itshould bedone, and you have aquintessential production byIlya Epelbaum, the founder and brainiac who invariably isbehind the delightfully crazy doings atthe Ten Theater.
“All“ isbased onKokovkin's play „Pushkinogopilis,” although itveers sofar off-course it isnowonder the playwright ismore confused bywhat ishappening than anyone else. Buffeted byindifferent theater employees, hostile spectators and his own lack ofbelief inwhat heisdoing the writer commences byreading his play insuch amumble, itseems his main goal istoavoid letting anyone hear it- hesoon finds himself entering into arguments and giving himself uptoreminiscences ofdays gone by. This ishow the renowned director Pyotr Fomenko first appears onscreen, for decades ago Kokovkin acted inaplay Fomenko staged inLeningrad. Fomenko isfollowed by, among others, Roman Viktyuk and Kama Ginkas, both ofwhom have staged plays byKokovkin.
With the appearance ofthese directors, “All“ splits into two plays atonce. One iswhat isleft of„Pushkinogopilis,” the tale ofhow Pushkin survived his duel with his rival D'Anthes in1837and ended upvisiting Gogol inRome 30 years later. The other isthe constantly shifting picture ofwhat the play might look like ifitwere staged byFomenko, Ginkas orsomeone else. Infact, what weactually see isless adescription ofapotential production and more apsychological and creative portrait ofthese directors atwork. Wesee them inthat rare and fascinating moment when they begin tolet their imaginations run free. Fomenko iscrafty and ironic, afountain ofideas and unexpected references. Ginkas isinspired, opinionated, energetic, contradictory and sarcastic, claiming heresembles Pushkin because the jokes ofboth invariably offend rather than amuse. Viktyuk, famous for his splashy, glitzy style, immediately retreats behind apair ofsunglasses when the camera isturned onand carefully slicks back his hair.
“All” taking its title from the critic Apollon Grigoryev's famous observation that “Pushkin isour everything” isaweird duck ofashow, and awonderful one, too. It's rather like amulti-disciplinary encyclopedia ofRussian culture and the creative process thrown together out ofalphabetical order and missing half its pages and published incomic book form.
Moscow theater has become dangerously slick and predictable over the last few years. Shows like “All“ and “OnGogol's Moon” are admirable antidotes tothat. Help save idiosyncratic theater: Call these venues and tell them you want tosee these shows.

„All” (Vsyo) plays atthe Ten Theater, located at5Oktyabrskaya Ulitsa. Metro Novoslobodskaya. Tel. 681-1516, 681-3590. Running time: 2hours.
“OnGogol's Moon” (Na Lune Gogolya) plays atthe Shchepkin Museum, located at47Ulitsa Shchepkina, Bldg. 2. Metro Prospekt Mira. Tel. 600-6149. Running time: 2hours.

John Freedman, 11.04.2008




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