Out of the Shadows, Ilya and Arseny Epelbaum in Moscow

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This was still another of those fun projects that came out of the blue. One day I opened my email to find a letter from the editor of Puppetry International. He wanted to know if I would like to write something for him. Boy, would I ever. One of the great treasures of Moscow, nay, Russian, theater in the years I wrote about it was the Ten’, or Shadow, Theater, founded and run by Ilya Epelbaum and Maya Krasnopolskaya. This couple epitomized the absolute pinnacle of talent, vision, humor, and humanity. No matter how crusty, angry, corrupted or arrogant a person entering their doors might be (and there were and are plenty of those types of individuals in Moscow), a warm, human, friendly smile would wash over their face as they were greeted by the hosts, and that smile would not leave their lips until they walked back down the external stairs to the street. The theater run by Epelbaum and Krasnopolskaya was one of the miracles of Russian culture for over 25 years. These days the parents have largely turned the theater over to their son Arseny, who seeks to do his own thing. At the time I wrote about him in the article below, he was already doing his own thing – his parents, like good parents, brought him up to be independent. It’s a joy for me to revisit these wonderful, talented people this morning with this repost. To my knowledge, the family production of The Blue Bird never came about.

Out of the Shadows: Ilya and Arseny Epelbaum in Moscow
By John Freedman
Completed July 15, 2009
Published in Puppetry International, Fall/Winter 2009 No. 26

It is hard to believe that no shadow theater existed in Moscow before Ilya Epelbaum emerged on the scene in the mid-1990s. On the other hand, now that Ilya and his son Arseny have become recognized as the shadow masters of Russian theater, it surely seems as though it must have been that way. 

Where would the shadows have been before Ilya and his wife Maya Krasnopolskaya founded their “family theater,” the Ten’, or Shadow, Theater in their apartment in 1987? Lighting designers have always known the value of a well-placed shadow, of course. In Russia, Yefim Udler knew no equals. But the extraordinary shadows and light concocted by Udler rarely had an independent function, their primary purpose being to evoke atmosphere and emotional shading. Naturally there were discrete shadow elements in the work at the Obraztsov Puppet Theater, decades ago one of the most influential puppet theaters in the world. But as the old adage has it, the exception proves the rule: the fact is that shadows were exclusively relegated to the realm of puppet theaters. It was a specialization limited to the confines of a specialized form of theatrical art. 

Ilya Epelbaum changed that. 

In the late 1980s Epelbaum was a professional design artist in his mid-20s with an itch to do something different. His wife Maya was a professional puppeteer. One thing led to another and, as two babies came into the picture, a daughter and then a son, the couple resolved to do the unthinkable – they decided to create their own theater. This was the Perestroika era, and the impulse was not unusual. For the first time in eight decades, Russians regained the right to open a theater without state intrusion or support. In an interview conducted in 2002, 11 years after the Ten’ had received official status as a municipal theater, Ilya told me what he and Maya had in mind. 

”A shadow theater seemed closest to what an artist does on paper,” Ilya explained. “But I have no education in theater and we couldn’t hold to the genre for long. I think what best describes us is ‘visual theater.’ Mine is the theater of an artist who begins with visual images and then adds literature, music and other things.”

The works that established the Ten’ Theater as an important Moscow venue were The Tour of the Lilikan Grand Royal Theater in Russia (1996) and P.I. Tchaikovsky. Swan Lake. The Opera (1998). 

The first was a total-environment work in which spectators entered a world created by Epelbaum and Krasnopolskaya. The show’s “performers” belonged to the fictitious Lilikan nation, a name created from the Russian words for “midget” (liliput) and “giant” (velikan). These people were ostensibly so tiny that when the Lilikan Grand Royal Theater went on tour, it took its entire physical plant with it, including, purportedly, the 2,000 Lilikan spectators who always kept their theater filled to the rafters. This and a myriad of other amusing details were narrated to us by the charming and ever-ironic Krasnopolskaya as if she were conducting an excursion through a museum. Spectators were led into a space that Ilya had constructed with elaborate chandeliers, tiny art works displayed on the walls, a cafeteria serving thumb-nail open-faced sandwiches, a bank to change rubles into the minuscule local currency of lils, a quartet of hand-painted, scrolling “video” screens on the walls, an actual moving puppet orchestra led by a wild-haired conductor and much more. The production of the touring Lilikan theater – an allegedly ancient folk epos titled Two Trees – was a frenetically-paced puppet show featuring one-inch puppets on the end of sticks. As funny and entertaining as it was, it was anti-climactic to the entire experience. The immersion of the audience into the world of the Lilikans took nearly 45 minutes; Two Trees clocked in at about fifteen.

Swan Lake, another grand ruse, began with a party in a foyer catered and hosted by Krasnopolskaya. It then transformed into a street theater scene – still in the foyer – with fire and tumbling actors who eventually led everyone into a hall where the remainder of the performance took place in traditional surroundings – actors on stage, spectators in their seats. But there was nothing traditional about this inventive work. The cast consisted of live actors, puppets, shadows and, most magically, images revealed in the ashes of burning paper or sketched by Epelbaum in real time in wax at the bottom of a shallow pan of water and projected onto a screen. 

In this tall tale, the creators claimed to have discovered a lost score by Tchaikovsky, indicating that his first draft of Swan Lake was an opera. The production at the Ten’ Theater, then, was billed as the world premiere of the great composer’s unknown work. That may not have fooled many, but I have yet to meet anyone who failed to be charmed by this multi-media spoof of everything theatrical. Arguably, it was Swan Lake that established Epelbaum as the go-to man for anyone wishing to incorporate shadows into their works. More importantly, it was probably Swan Lake and Lilikan Grand Royal Theater together that encouraged theater makers to think outside the box and employ unorthodox visual elements in their work.

Epelbaum and Krasnopolskaya further encouraged this notion in the 2000s by establishing a series of miniatures called The Lilikan Museum of Theatrical Ideas. These were productions that the husband and wife created in tandem with famous performers, directors and writers. All ran approximately 15 minutes and were performed inside an exquisitely detailed, scale model of a real opera house replete with 2,000 spectators, balconies, an orchestra pit and ornate windows through which real spectators watched the action. 

The legendary theater director Anatoly Vasilyev was invited to stage a brief, but hilarious and incendiary version of Moliere’s The Misanthrope, in which the director had a puppet spectator hurled from the balcony to his death before having the entire theater burned down, using clever lighting and shimmering plastic sheets, of course. Tonino Guerra, Fellini and Antonioni’s collaborator and script-writer, created an astonishing apocalyptic piece called Rain after the Flood, in which many of the world’s major cities were inundated by water before the theater itself was drowned, literally using smoke and mirrors. The world-class Bolshoi Ballet soloist Nikolai Tsiskaridze actually danced pirouettes in a show called The Death of Polyphemus – his leg and foot were just able to fit down onto the miniature stage of the scale model theater. 

By this time Epelbaum was being invited to ply his trade elsewhere. When the composer Alexander Bakshi conceived the idea for an adventurous, essentially wordless production called From the Red Book of Extinction (2003), he enlisted Epelbaum as co-creator. Working on stage with a video camera, an overhead projector, and a palette of watercolors, Epelbaum created an ever-evolving environment projected on huge drops behind the players. One of the most moving moments in this work about people and cultural phenomena being pushed to the edge of extinction in the modern world was a scene of a live ballerina dancing in silence as Epelbaum appeared to paint her into a cage. Slowly but surely, his brushstrokes projected on the wall behind the performer trapped her in a corner then blacked her out altogether. 

Working at the renowned Sovremennik Theater in 2004, Epelbaum created numerous shadow scenes for Valery Fokin’s dramatization of Nikolai Gogol’s The Overcoat, the story of the impoverished clerk Bashmachkin who is obsessed with the idea of obtaining a new overcoat. In the prologue of this one-actor show, Epelbaum created a hypnotic, silent snowstorm, both hinting at the setting in wintry St. Petersburg, as well as tipping the spectator off to the sensation of isolation that never abandons the unfortunate clerk. In fact, the weather of this show – rain, floods, snow and ice – was rendered exclusively in shadows. Epelbaum’s shadow creations also gave expression to several of Bashmachkin’s dream images, among them an undulating sewing machine that is in the process of making the fateful new overcoat.

But it was a scene of nighttime violence in which, for a few moments, Epelbaum’s shadows became the primary players. Against the spectral background of an ominous St. Petersburg skyline, a shadowy group of thugs chaotically swept across the back screen appearing to attack the actor playing Bashmachkin and make off with his prized possession. All of this was created by backlit actors performing behind a screen.

Arseny Epelbaum could not possibly have escaped the influence of his parents’ theater even if he had wished to. He was literally born, raised and educated there. Although he never performed in any of the shows – he claims his parents were too serious about their work to allow that – he was eternally in the midst of everything as it was being conceived and created. By the time he was 14 he knew he wanted to study theater professionally and applied to the Moscow Art Theater school. Not accepted because of his age, he was able the following year to enter the Russian Academy of Theater Arts. He graduated in 2007 at the tender age of 19.

While still a student at the institute, Arseny found his way into the company of Dmitry Krymov, one of the most important and innovative directors to emerge in Moscow in the 2000s. As he tells it, he was sitting in on rehearsals of Krymov’s Sir Vantes. Donkey Hot in 2005 when a discussion arose about shadow figures. Arseny offered his services, but Krymov didn’t take the unknown 17 year-old seriously. Later, however, when the scene still hadn’t gelled, Krymov was encouraged by his actors to bring the youth back. According to Arseny, the students said, “He’s the son of that guy from the Ten’ Theater,” and that apparently was enough to convince Krymov to make the call.  Epelbaum, Jr., ended up creating shadows for and performing in several of Krymov’s productions over the next few years. 

Apart from his work on Donkey Hot, Arseny mounted detailed shadow scenes for Krymov’s dramatization of Andrei Platonov’s story The Cow (2007) at the School of Dramatic Art. He also performed in Krymov’s production of The Demon. The View from Above (2006), and for Krymov’s studio he directed a delightfully tongue-in-cheek show called Optimus Mundus (2007), in which 12 spectators, broken into groups of four, chased four actors from place to place, watching scenes unfold from the deconstructed works of Shakespeare and Alexander Pushkin.

If the delicate and beautiful images created for Donkey Hot were relatively traditional – images of humans working puppets behind a screen – those devised for The Cow were more sophisticated. They included a segment, in which an individual takes apart a train in order to rebuild it as a rocket, and a full-length scene of a man’s earliest erotic memories. Here, as the man thinks back to his childhood, his memories of stirring adolescent sexuality and the love he had for his family cow commingle in a single knot of sensations that are expressed in the form of a woman’s silhouette undressing and dressing again one night. 

Other shows for which Epelbaum, Jr., has created shadow scenes include Alexander Ogaryov’s staging of Alexander Chugunov’s Libido (2006) and Alexei Burykin’s staging of his own play Foreign Windows (2009). This latter work contains some of the most advanced shadow work the young artist has created to date. Burykin’s mystical play about four people meeting before and after they are born is performed in a generally empty space. Epelbaum created elaborate and dynamic shadow backdrops that place different moments of action in, among other places, a leafy park, an urban riverside, a street with a tram moving down its tracks, a traffic-jammed thoroughfare, and an interior with a rain-washed window. Projected at a sharp angle onto the stage’s back wall through a door at stage right, the images were visibly distorted, giving them a sense of life and movement, as well as accentuating the otherworldliness that was an important part of Burykin’s play. 

At present Ilya, Maya and Arseny are working together for the first time on a new production of The Blue Bird. The plan is to build a long corridor with walls made of film screens, through which spectators will walk as shadows and film images from Maeterlinck’s play surround them on two sides. If that sounds like something you have never seen, you are beginning to get a picture of what the Epelbaums consider a normal day’s work. 


1  Quoted in John Freedman, “Total Theater, Starring Puppets,” New York Times (March 31, 2002); available online at: http://www.nytimes.com/2002/03/31/theater/theater-total-theater-starring-puppets.html?pagewanted=all

2  For more on the Krymov studio see John Freedman, “Dmitry Krymov: Designer’s Theatre,” TheatreForum No. 32 (2008): 13-18.

3  Quoted in John Freedman, “In the Family,” The Moscow Times (August 8, 2008).


John Freedman is the theater critic of The Moscow Times and co-author, with Kama Ginkas, of Provoking Theater: Kama Ginkas Directs. His voice plays the lead role in The Epic of Lilikan, the latest show to open at Moscow’s Ten’ Theater.

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