Front Row Center? Give Me an Aisle Seat!

Oh! This blog has blood on it. A newly appointed editor decided that I didn’t write it well enough and he decided to rewrite half of it. The half that he didn’t rewrite he cut. In a blog, for God’s sake! My personal blog! I hit the roof when I saw what went up online. What you read below is not what was published. It’s what I delivered to the beady-eyed bastard in the editor’s chair in the first place. There are editors and there are editors, of course. I had some fabulous editors in my 25 years writing for The Moscow Times – Margaret Henry, Rebecca Reich, Frank Brown, Kevin O’Flynn, among them. There were a few – usually short-lived, thank God, for whom burning in Hell would be too good. I’ll never forget one way, way back, long before anyone had ever heard of blogs, who chose to improve my article by correcting the English of someone I quoted in the body of my text. The problem was that I had quoted Shakespeare. Anyway, when I stopped the editor in the corridor to ask him, please, don’t ever “correct” my articles again without asking me first, he puffed up his chest and said, “I’ll have you know I have a college degree in English. Just so that you know who you’re talking to!” 

19 March 2009
By John Freedman

Did you know there are theater productions, right here in Moscow, that last longer than intercontinental flights? Alexei Borodin’s production of Tom Stoppard’s “The Coast of Utopia” at the National Youth Theater runs over 10 hours. In that time you can fly from Moscow to New York. Yevgeny Kamenkovich’s dramatization of James Joyce’s “Ulysses” at the Fomenko Studio runs for over five and a half hours. That’ll get you from Moscow down into the African continent.

Now, I’m not suggesting you’re better off skipping town than seeing one of these shows. On the contrary. They’re pretty good. But here’s something else worth bringing up: Have you ever spent as much time thinking about where, on what, and between whom, you are going to sit in a theater, as you do when you go online and make seat selections before heading home for the holidays? You might find it worth your time.

The quality of seating in Moscow theaters is as diverse as the theaters themselves. There are soft, comfortable seats that receive your body with delicacy and sensitivity. There are seats that tell you, “We really would rather you didn’t come here at all.” There are seats that cater to the young and there are seats that pity the old. There are seats you cannot see out of and there are seats you cannot get out of – not without difficulty, anyway.

Perhaps my favorites are the seats at the Vakhtangov Theater. These upholstered green, velvety chairs seem to have been made with human bodies in mind. They are soft enough to support you through the longest shows, but not so luxurious as to let you fall asleep during the most trying of evenings. Unless you’re a critic, of course, but critics can sleep in box cars tumbling down cliffs. I complained about critics in this space a few weeks ago, however, so let’s move on from there.

Also making my list of the best seats in town are both halls belonging to the Maly Theater  – the original next to the Bolshoi Theater on Teatralnaya Ploshchad, and the affiliate stage near the Dobryniskaya metro stop. Not only are the upholstered chairs at these venues beautiful, they seem to have been made by someone who respected his fellow humans and future spectators. True, space is a bit more cramped at the older hall than at the newer affiliate. But, still, you sit down in either of these houses and feel as though you have something to live up to, and that someone is willing to give you the chance to do that. This, I might add, is a good feeling to have in a theater.

One of the first times I attended a performance at Anatoly Vasilyev’s School of Dramatic Art in the then-new building on Sretenka Ulitsa, Vasilyev took the stage before the show and made an extraordinary admission. “If I had my way,” he declared, “none of you spectators would be here. But since you are, I must inform you that during the performance no one is permitted to speak and no one will be permitted to leave.” Vasilyev, who is notoriously skeptical of, if not to say hostile to, spectators in his theater, is now long gone from Moscow. That’s a complicated story we don’t care about in the present context. What is important is that the seats Vasilyev had put into his theater are still there and still taking revenge on spectators. The tapered, hardwood benches and the narrow, hard chairs on which spectators sit there are aggressive in the discomfort they cause. I have plenty of padding on my back end and, believe me, all of it invariably goes numb by the time I get to the end of a show at this theater.

Numerous theaters seem to have been built for a population from the 18th or 19th century, when, as I’m sure it has been scientifically proven by someone, people were much shorter. The strange thing about this is that all of these theaters were built in the 20th century and many were remodeled in the 21st. What were the remodeling architects thinking? In the seats of the newly remodeled Pushkin Theater I physically cannot sit normally. I am not exceptionally tall, an inch or so over 6 feet. But the seats in front of me in this house are so close that I can only sit with my legs splayed to either side, fighting for precious territory that my neighbors surely wish I would vacate. It is the same at the Praktika Theater, the Stanislavsky Theater and the National Youth Theater. Whenever I attend these theaters I always ask for an aisle seat if I can – just like I do on all my flights to New York.

Aktovy Zal at the hip new Fabrika space is one of the big draws for young people these days. It is about as close to a true youth hang-out as Moscow theater has. And, boy, does the attitude to people over 30 show in the seats. I mean, at least Vasilyev put backs on those nasty benches at the School of Dramatic Art. There isn’t even that at Aktovy Zal. Backless hard benches with the row in front of you so close that you have no idea what to do with your knees and feet. If you know anyone coming off a week in the hospital with a herniated disk, whisper them the word before they head off for Fabrika.

Another venue that works on the principal of survival of the fittest is Teatr.doc. This black-box basement room is made for experiments and young people testing their mettle in the world. The somewhat chaotic seating arrangements here emerge out of a mélange of chairs, benches, pillows and nooks and crannies on window sills. Anything the organizers here can drag in can be sat on. But as that old Russian saw has it – people don’t take offense when crammed in a crowd. And that’s how it is here. The energy here is invariably supportive even if the seat you’re on isn’t always.

Some of the worse sight lines you’ll find are at the world-famous Moscow Art Theater. This may be the house that Stanislavsky built, but I’ll wager Stanislavsky never sat farther back than the eighth or ninth row or he surely would have demanded changes. The seats in the last seven or eight rows of the orchestra pit allow you to hear little and see less. Even worse are the three rows of what is called the amphitheater. Here you are bundled up under the low roof of the balcony above you and you feel more like a canned sardine than a theater-goer. Your impressions of the show depend almost exclusively on the conversations you hear during intermission and at the coat rack after the show. (Don’t believe what you hear.) Almost as bad are the two rows running along both side walls on a perpendicular plane to the stage. The poor people in these seats look like someone watching a tennis match that God put on hold with the ball stuck eternally at the far end of the court. I dare anyone to sit through a typical three-hour show in one of these seats and not walk out with the worst crick in the neck they ever had.

What does all this mean? Aside from the opinions your backside and neck may have – not much. Probably the most comfortable seats in all of Moscow are to be found at the huge Estrada Theater,across the Moscow River from the Christ the Savior cathedral. These seats are soft and spacious. And while sitting in one I have almost never seen a show worth seeing. My wife constantly reminds me that beauty requires sacrifice. So does art, apparently.


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