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Theater Under Threat

“All“ and “On Gogol's Moon“ are two unusual and creative entries in the Golden Mask's Experiment Competition. But their future is uncertain.

The Moscow Times

Passing pleasures are no less pleasurable for their brevity. Still, there are some things you'd like to see last a little longer.
Consider “All,” a typically unorthodox production at the Ten Theater, which provides an eccentric look at the myths of Alexander Pushkin and Nikolai Gogol in Russian culture. Up for an award in the Experiment Competition of the Golden Mask Festival, which is currently underway in Moscow, this quirky mix of live acting, film and animation has been performed just nine times but its future is uncertain.
And consider „On Gogol's Moon,” an idiosyncratic take on Gogol's life and work that has been performed four times at the Shchepkin Museum. The administration of the museum, currently under reconstruction, has not decided whether to make its pristine, empty halls available to the show's company for further performances.
It would be a shame to lose either one of these unusual productions, which purposefully stray as far from the mainstream as they possibly can.
„On Gogol's Moon,” subtitled «Playing the Classics, No. 1,» is a sometimes dreamy, sometimes jarring fantasy on themes that have been associated with Gogol for over a century and a half. The text consists of excerpts drawn from Gogol's works mixed with snippets of literary criticism, songs, a contemporary story by Viktoria Tokareva and even an astrological forecast. The show commences long before it begins, as actors dance gracefully through the empty rooms of the museum, occasionally approaching spectators in the coatroom or theater cafe in the basement to whisper revelations about Gogol. Meanwhile, an animated film of Gogol portraits morphing into the Mona Lisa or other grimacing or laughing faces is projected on the cafe's back wall. When spectators finally take their seats in the main performance room upstairs, they are greeted by a scowling figure in an overcoat (Yulia Bogdanovich), snapping a switch in the air every few moments.
Director Anatoly Ledukhovsky pulled together a show that explores and seeks to defend everything that is strange, obnoxious, sickly and obscure in the creative temperament. Gogol's Madman (Yelena Voronchikhina), from “The Notes of a Madman,” is assailed by the threatening figure in the overcoat — perhaps, at this moment, a sadistic guard in an asylum — while in a later scene the great 19th-century Russian actor Mikhail Shchepkin (Ildar Allabirdin) encourages Gogol to scorn the wrath of the public, for their wrath is the very proof of his success as a writer. A character identified as Gogol-Mogol (Maria Galkina), the Russian for eggnog, sings lilting, melodic songs with off-kilter lyrics creating the impression of a world in which the fabric of reality is on the verge of ripping wide open. It is a territory that is both puzzling and appealing. A drowned woman seeking revenge (Olesya Mozdir) from Gogol's story “A May Night, or the Drowned Woman” morphs into a contemporary girl spurned in love. These women, like other spectral characters coming and going in Ledukhovsky's Gogolian universe, are poised on the brink of oblivion, struggling to make life mean something by telling or acting out stories about it.
The performance takes place in a bare, white room with doors to two other rooms occasionally opening to deliver or swallow up the transient actors. Lighting is often provided by actors carrying candles or spotlights that create monstrous and funny shadows crawling up and down the walls.
Gogol's world, which has been one of the most curious in all of Russian literature ever since it appeared nearly 180 years ago, emerges in Ledukhovsky's interpretation as one that is surreal but, paradoxically perhaps, not bizarre. Everything in this constantly shifting tale is familiar — madmen set upon by those intending to heal them; dreamers brought back to earth by people demanding clarity and practicality; discarded lovers and other sinned-against individuals plotting revenge or release. Isn't this the world as we know it? But Ledukhovsky brings it to us in delicately skewed form, stories breaking off unfinished and running into others with which they seem to have nothing in common.
“All” is a multimedia performance piece employing the work's actual author on stage as a playwright (Sergei Kokovkin), a respected poet as an accomplished poet (Lev Rubinshtein), a theater administrator impersonating a theater administrator (Alexei Shashilov), the theater's managing director (Maya Krasnopolskaya) in the role of a theater manager and a genuine famous actor (Nikolai Fomenko) playing the role of a genuinely famous actor playing the role of Pushkin 30 years after he was supposed to have been killed — but was not. Throw in the participation of Pushkin and Gogol as puppets and characters in an animated film plus, by way of videotaped conversations, a host of famous theater personalities having their say on what this play may mean and how it should be done, and you have a quintessential production by Ilya Epelbaum, the founder and brainiac who invariably is behind the delightfully crazy doings at the Ten Theater.
“All“ is based on Kokovkin's play „Pushkinogopilis,” although it veers so far off-course it is no wonder the playwright is more confused by what is happening than anyone else. Buffeted by indifferent theater employees, hostile spectators and his own lack of belief in what he is doing — the writer commences by reading his play in such a mumble, it seems his main goal is to avoid letting anyone hear it - he soon finds himself entering into arguments and giving himself up to reminiscences of days gone by. This is how the renowned director Pyotr Fomenko first appears on screen, for decades ago Kokovkin acted in a play Fomenko staged in Leningrad. Fomenko is followed by, among others, Roman Viktyuk and Kama Ginkas, both of whom have staged plays by Kokovkin.
With the appearance of these directors, “All“ splits into two plays at once. One is what is left of „Pushkinogopilis,” the tale of how Pushkin survived his duel with his rival D'Anthes in 1837 and ended up visiting Gogol in Rome 30 years later. The other is the constantly shifting picture of what the play might look like if it were staged by Fomenko, Ginkas or someone else. In fact, what we actually see is less a description of a potential production and more a psychological and creative portrait of these directors at work. We see them in that rare and fascinating moment when they begin to let their imaginations run free. Fomenko is crafty and ironic, a fountain of ideas and unexpected references. Ginkas is inspired, opinionated, energetic, contradictory and sarcastic, claiming he resembles Pushkin because the jokes of both invariably offend rather than amuse. Viktyuk, famous for his splashy, glitzy style, immediately retreats behind a pair of sunglasses when the camera is turned on and carefully slicks back his hair.
“All” — taking its title from the critic Apollon Grigoryev's famous observation that “Pushkin is our everything” — is a weird duck of a show, and a wonderful one, too. It's rather like a multi-disciplinary encyclopedia of Russian culture and the creative process thrown together out of alphabetical order and missing half its pages — and published in comic book form.
Moscow theater has become dangerously slick and predictable over the last few years. Shows like “All“ and “On Gogol's Moon” are admirable antidotes to that. Help save idiosyncratic theater: Call these venues and tell them you want to see these shows.

„All” (Vsyo) plays at the Ten Theater, located at 5 Oktyabrskaya Ulitsa. Metro Novoslobodskaya. Tel. 681-1516, 681-3590. Running time: 2 hours.
“On Gogol's Moon” (Na Lune Gogolya) plays at the Shchepkin Museum, located at 47 Ulitsa Shchepkina, Bldg. 2. Metro Prospekt Mira. Tel. 600-6149. Running time: 2 hours.

John Freedman, 11.04.2008

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