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When Memories Are in the Program

Program94_1_YoU

Theater Plus blog No. 94 (as will be the sequel, No. 95) is a bit of a walk down nostalgia lane for me. As I mention below, I am – or I should say now, I was – a pack rat. I have been through some purges since this piece was written, and I no longer have all those old programs. They have gone the way of the world. Doubly cool, then, that I have these posts to remind myself of at least a few of the memorable booklets and slips of paper that used to take up so much space and gather so much dust in my study. The photo above is of the program for Olga Mukhina’s YoU, which opened at the end of September 2001. Below are the Hamlet and the front and back of the Reading of a New Play programs. Read on.

10 November 2010
By John Freedman

My wife Oksana is to blame for what follows.

She came home from her parents’ house the other day holding in her hands a faded, stained piece of paper.

“Look at this,” she said. “It’s the program from a performance of Vladimir Vysotsky playing Hamlet that I never got to see.”

That right there is a whole family legend. About how Oksana’s sister Marina got tickets to see the great Vysotsky at the Taganka Theater in Yury Lyubimov’s legendary production of “Hamlet,” but Marina went with her boyfriend instead of her sister.

Sound logical? Not to Oksana. She still believes that fate cheated her. Marina then was a “mere” future violist and, although Oksana had not entered theater school yet, she knew in her heart that the stage was her domain. As such she also knew that no one deserved those coveted tickets more than she, although she couldn’t convince Marina of that.

This slight, along with one of someone stealing someone’s ice cream (an altercation right out of my own family mythology), still comes up in those tight moments that families sometimes have.

I heard this story all over again as Oksana held the program for “Hamlet” in her hands as if she were holding the Holy Grail.

But what I was thinking as Oksana again urged me to take her side in this ancient family argument was, “Wow! Look at that old theater program!”

You see, I am a pack rat. I still have programs from shows that I attended when I was in grad school in Boston in the early 1980s. Yes, that’s right: I left behind my whole life when I moved to Russia in the late 1980s, but I brought my theater programs.

As the critic for The Moscow Times, I have attended more than 2,000 shows in Moscow in the last two decades. And, yes, I have the programs to prove it. They are covered with dust, creased, yellowed and scribbled on — but they are cherished. Every time I think it might be a good thing to toss all those old crumpled things out, I can’t bring myself to do it.

Theater programs are marvelous objects. Russian programs, particularly, are extremely simple. Often just a piece of paper or two, folded or stapled together. There might be a picture, there might just be some typed information. But whatever form a program takes, it provides a tangible connection to an experience that only exists in memory now.

After filing Oksana’s Vysotsky treasure away in my archive, I couldn’t help but go through some of my own prized possessions.

A few called forth unexpected memories.

Olga Mukhina’s “YoU” premiered on the so-called New Stage of the Chekhov Moscow Art Theater on Sept. 20, 2001. I was otherwise engaged that night and so made plans to attend the second show on Sept. 21. As it happened, I was seated next to Mukhina’s grandmother, Lyudmila Grigoryevna. I may never have had such a gracious neighbor in a theater.

Lyudmila Grigoryevna did not seem the least taken in by the fame her granddaughter had acquired of late. I had the feeling that she thought Olga could write even better if she would just apply herself. And I had the feeling that she had probably told Olga that, perhaps more than once.

“Have you seen this yet?” she asked me politely but with genuine interest. I told her I had not. “I have heard various things about it,” she said matter-of-factly.

Lyudmila Grigoryevna struck me as a woman of great pride who had no need or interest to broadcast that at all. It was just part of the air around her. She did not betray any nervousness before the show began, nor did she reveal any deep personal reaction following the curtain calls.

I think she was underwhelmed by what she saw, but experienced a sense of pride that the little girl she used to bounce on her knee had written a play good enough to be produced at the House that Stanislavsky Built. As well she should have.

Another production I attended on the second night was Grigory Gurvich’s “The Reading of a New Play” at the brand-new Bat Cabaret Theater. This was in 1989, and perestroika was still in full swing — well, as full swing as it ever got.

Gurvich was a genius of comic theater whose time in the spotlight was short, but unforgettable. When he died at the age of 42 in 1999, Moscow lost one of its finest citizens. In The Moscow Times in 1994 I called Gurvich “the big man with a big mission and an even bigger heart, [who] works the kind of magic that has the power to shape a city’s personality.”

I stand by that wholeheartedly today. Gurvich’s absence has made the Moscow theater world less welcoming, less resilient, less chic and more pompous. It is a hole in the fabric of a community that has never been repaired.

I missed “The Reading of a New Play” because I knew nothing about it. But, boy, by the next day I did! All Moscow was talking about it, and I made it down to the theater in a hurry to see what the fuss was about.

Gurvich had resurrected an old idea — a famous cabaret called The Bat, which was run by an actor named Nikita Baliyev in the pre-war years in Moscow. It was an idea whose time had come — again.

Gurvich’s sense of humor, his sense of intelligent nostalgia and his own personal je ne sais quoi were absolutely irresistible. At a time when it seemed that Russia was ready to keel over and slip out of view, Gurvich and his theater presented a view of the local world that was funny, bold, respectful, even reverent, all the while without missing an opportunity to satirize whatever was deserving.

I remember all that very well.

But a quick glance at the program for “The Reading of a New Play” held a small and important surprise for me. There, in the left-hand column of participants, were both Maya Krasnopolskaya and Ilya Epelbaum, better known today as the masterminds behind Moscow’s extraordinary Ten, or shadow, Theater. I, along with most of Moscow, did not know them then, and so could not possibly have “remembered” them being a part of the crew that put “The Reading of a New Play” together.

A collaboration like that makes perfect sense. If anyone can be considered the heirs to Gurvich’s theater of goodwill, it would be Krasnopolskaya and Epelbaum. But it took me digging back into my old programs to learn that little tidbit.

Oh, and another bit of interesting information gleaned from that program: It cost 15 kopeks. By comparison I paid 120 rubles for a program at a fashionable Moscow playhouse a few days ago.

The photos above and below offer images of the programs I discuss in this column.

Program94_4_Vysotsky

Program94_2_Bat1

Program94_3_Bat2

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Snaring Russian Theater in the Net

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Here is Theater Plus blog No. 93. Not one of my most memorable or important ones by any stretch of the imagination. But definitely of interest. From time to time I would simply sit down and surf the net to find what I could find in regards to Russian theater and drama. On occasion I’d uncover some unexpected things and on this occasion I found enough to turn it into a blog. These may be old sources now, but they’re still of value if you’re interested in what was going down in Russian theater seven years ago. For the photo I chose a shot I took at Lyubimovka in Sept. 2010. It shows Russian playwright Yury Klavdiev, American playwright David M. White, and English director Noah Birksted-Breen.

01 November 2010
By John Freedman

Recently I did some surfing on the Internet to see what has been written about Russian theater of late. I do this with some regularity, and I’m rather accustomed to the results. It isn’t often that I find something I hadn’t seen before.

So I don’t know if it was the improved searching capabilities of some of the search engines, or if I was just less glassy-eyed than usual. But several pieces cropped up that surprised me. Combined with some of the worthy regulars that show up with any search, I realized I had made discoveries that were worth talking about.

How can I not start with Noah Birksted-Breen, a director, translator and playwright who works out of London and runs his own Russian-themed theater called Sputnik? Birksted-Breen is so ubiquitous that he has even spelled me a time or two in this column space while I was on vacation.

Actually, I’m pretty up-to-date on what Noah is doing, so I was surprised to find a blog that he wrote for the Guardian in March 2009, which I had never seen. This one caught my eye especially because, rather than pushing contemporary Russian drama as he usually does, here he was extolling the virtues of Russian classical literature.

I am particularly partial to his call for someone to find the nerve to stage Alexander Ostrovsky in English. Ostrovsky was the Russian Shakespeare, a giant of the theater. The fact that he is somehow “too Russian,” i.e., more arcane than Chekhov, has hindered his legacy in English for more than a century. I’m with Noah — let’s find somebody who is willing to put this guy on English-language stages.

Having mentioned Noah in England, I now travel all the way around the globe to Alaska. Yes, to that place where Russia can be seen looming out of some politicians’ windows. At least that is so when said politicians aren’t tracking down grizzly bears.

You see, Alaska is the home of Anatoly Antohin, who, until the spring of 2009, was a professor of theater at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. Antohin, who emigrated from Russia in the 1980s, is a playwright, director and something of a mad Internet scholar. His web site is a trip to enter. When its home page opens, you feel a little like you are being lowered into the cyber version of Shakespeare’s “boil, boil, toil and bubble.”

But isn’t that what good theater — and good writing about it — should always be like?

I was taken aback to find an interview in English with the Yekaterinburg playwright Oleg Bogayev from 2009. Oleg is an old acquaintance, and I still remember receiving an electronic copy of his newest play, “Maria’s Field,” a few years back.

What I had no idea about, however, was that a production of that very play was mounted in Chicago in the spring of 2009. As part of the lead-up to that, Oleg responded to several questions in written form, and that was published on the web site of the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs.

Writing about what it was like to grow up in Russia as a child, Oleg offered this beautiful observation: “I don’t think there is any other place in the world with such fresh morning air as in Russia when I was seven years old.”

A pair of Bogayev’s fellow citizens from Yekaterinburg were the toast of contemporary Russian drama throughout much of the first decade of the 2000s. I would wager that more has been written about the Presnyakov brothers than any other playwrights of this decade. And yet, somehow a 2006 piece about them that ran in Time magazine somehow slipped past me.

I find this article particularly interesting because its final lines describe a new play the brothers were then working on. The title is not mentioned, but the description leaves no doubt: It is “Seven Days Before the Flood,” which opened at Moscow’s Stanislavsky Drama Theater just this fall.

(For the record, I will run a review of this play in The Moscow Times on Thursday.)

One of the oddest discoveries that I made is a pdf document of a text by Maksym Kurochkin with no explanation as to its origins. I happen to know, however, that Kurochkin spent several months in residence at the International Writers Program of the University of Iowa in 2004. I also know that shortly after Kurochkin wrote this curious piece about bicycles and the principles of good theater, he wrote a play called “The Schooling of Bento Bonchev,” about bicycles and the weird nature of love on an American college campus sometime in the not-too-distant future.

Ah, they can’t escape us literary sleuths!

However, if you are going to do any surfing of your own, be forewarned: The playwright Maksym Kurochkin, who hails from Kiev and whose first name is sometimes spelled Maxim or Maksim, has nothing to do whatsoever with Mad Maxim Kurochkin, the purported Russian businessman and alleged crime boss who was murdered outside a Kiev courthouse in 2007.

Almost exactly one year ago the Royal Shakespeare Company was taking a chance on a pair of playwriting Russian brothers from the Durnenkov family of Tolyatti. Vyacheslav and Mikhail write separately as often as they write together these days, but for this project in London they were back in collaboration mode.

The play they came up with, “The Drunks” (which you can read about here and here), observes a bumbling politician as he attempts to attach himself to an ex-war hero for political gain. It received uniformly positive reviews, if it also received the requisite “Russia must be crazy” tag from many reviewers, who, one must assume, never bother to look at the headlines in their own national newspapers.

More recent is a review of Yury Klavdiyev’s “I Am the Machine Gunner,” which recently played outside of Chicago in a production by the Generous Company of Baltimore. Klavdiyev, by the way, also hails from Tolyatti, and he also spooked the critic enough to get lumped in with the generation of British authors known as the “New Brutalists.”

I’m always for putting a scare into critics.

Finally, there is Steven Leigh Morris’ beautiful review of Lee Breuer’s production of Sam Shepard’s “The Curse of the Starving Class” in Saratov. This is not the video chat that I did with Steven outside the Theater Yunogo Zritelya in Saratov a while back; it is Morris’ full-length essay in the L.A. Weekly. It is a rewarding read.

From a Scribe’s Pen to a Harvard Classroom

Horace_Lunt

Courtesy Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute
A portrait of Horace Lunt.

With this post of my Theater Plus blog No. 92 I resume the republication of a series of over 200 blogs I wrote for The Moscow Times between 2009 and 2014, when the MT shut off the blog space. Most of those blogs have since been lost in the undulating ether. As I said at the beginning of this reclamation project, I feel that I wrote several pieces during this time that have some value beyond the day or week they originally appeared. This piece here about my professor Horace Lunt is surely one of those. At the expense of merely repeating what you will read below, I will restate the fact that Horace Lunt had as big an impact on me as any professor I studied with during my graduate studies at Harvard, and that still holds true even when you take into account the fact that I only took one class from him. But what a class! It was a legendary class that left its imprint on hundreds of Slavic studies scholars over the decades. But that’s all in the piece below.
What I would like to add here are a few words about a wonderful, though brief, correspondence that arose between Professor Lunt’s daughter Catherine and me after she found this piece on line. Here are a few lines that she wrote Oct. 28, 2010: “It is so wonderful to hear all these tales of how my father influenced people and how they saw him.  I had to laugh at the torture imagery, as all the world outside of Slavists viewed him (rightly) as gentle, sweet and certainly among the most harmless of humans–not scary in the least.  Of course I don’t recall having much desire to have him critique my writing or anything…but actually I have a genetic compulsion to do that myself…”
And then there was this wonderful observation she made the next day, Oct. 29, in response to my comment that it must sound crazy to her to hear other people’s impressions of her father: “No tales of my father sound crazy,” she wrote, “he was a very quiet fellow, but full of interesting surprises when one asked the right questions.  As his child, of course I just saw him as Dad, and kind of the quintessential tweedy, absent-minded professor (my friends found it both disturbing and hilarious that if they spoke to him or asked a question when he was fully immersed in his work, he occasionally responded in another language), so tidbits like ‘counterintelligence agent’ were a little difficult to integrate…but, silent waters run deep, as they say, and who knows what the heck is lurking in those depths.  I would not be surprised to hear most any stories about my father…unless maybe you told me he had been a linebacker for the Redskins in the early 60’s, or had done time for animal cruelty.
The death of a parent makes us children step back and look at someone we knew extremely well in one way, sometimes to find that there was more to our father or mother than we knew. It’s a whole new learning curve.

25 October 2010
By John Freedman

I never talked to Horace Lunt about newspaper reporters. But I’ll bet he didn’t like them.

Something at which Lunt would rail at least once in every one of his classes in Old Church Slavonic was “scribal error.” More about that in a moment, but let me point this out: The scribes of old were the journalists of today. Or something thereabouts.

You see, right there — Lunt would be unhappy. “Something thereabouts.” What the hell does that mean? Be specific. Be clear. Be exact.

Well, here I am, in my guise of a newspaperman, writing about Horace Lunt. Sorry, Professor. I’ve got to do it. There was a memorial commemoration of Lunt’s life and work held on Friday at Harvard University and I couldn’t be there. So I’ll need to have my say this way, on a newspaper website, from Russia.

I had the privilege and good fortune to be a very small — no, minuscule — part of what was for decades an institution in American Slavic studies. I was one of Horace Lunt’s students in the famous course in Old Church Slavonic. This was a rite of passage for every graduate student in the Slavic Department at Harvard, one that gave you instant and eternal cachet with every other Slavist in the United States and much of the world.

Consider this for example: Rebecca Reich, my friend and former editor at The Moscow Times, wrote me recently that “unfortunately,” she arrived at Harvard too late to study with Lunt. The reputation of the man’s work continues to be as weighty as ever.

Lunt died in August, just short of his 92nd birthday. He lived an extraordinary life, the life of a true American intellectual. So influential was his work that he became a national hero among Macedonian-speaking people, for whom he wrote the first-ever Macedonian grammar in 1952, and became anathema in Bulgaria and Greece because of their historical claims on the Macedonian language and culture. The name of Lunt, who was stubbornly apolitical in his work, is still capable of stirring controversy in the Balkans. And, as recently as 2006, a writer working on a novel called “The Macedonian Tendency” was planning on making Lunt a character in his narrative.

Lunt’s colleague at Harvard, Michael S. Flier, wrote a brilliant obituary that says all of this far better than I could. My designs are more modest.

By the time I got to Lunt in the mid-1980s, the word was that he had mellowed. But stories from the old guard among the grad students who knew former grad students were still enough to make any incoming first-year student go weak in the knees. I remember having visions of people being tortured on racks, body parts piled in a corner and clanking chains in the dungeon, I mean basement, of the Science Building where our classes would be held.

Those concerns were not alleviated when Professor Lunt walked into the room that first day. That is how daunting the stories were about the man. Daunting because, in fact, Horace Lunt was a fine-looking man, astonishingly fit as he neared the age of 70, and really quite personable.

But there was Lunt’s conviction and dedication to his work to contend with. And that was revealed in his every gesture, word and glance.

Lunt did not brook lazy thought, to say nothing of lazy actions. He would not abide it in his students or in his scholarly opponents. The professor’s often cranky, cantankerous articles, reviews and letters to editors were legendary. And this is important — in fact, it is the whole point: The legend grew not because of Lunt’s acerbic pen, but because of the unparalleled clarity and superiority of his arguments.

Lunt may have shot down more puffed-up academic careers than any other scholar of his time. And it was all because he believed in the truth and in doing things thoroughly and right. People established reputations by concocting elaborate theories for aberrations in syntax or word formation in old texts, or at least until Lunt realized that their whole argument was based on that simplest and most malicious bane of human existence — the error. The scribal error.

The wrong letter in the wrong place; a strange shift in the narrative flow of a sentence. What some interpreted as Old Church Slavonic morphing into Old Russian or showing the influence of some other linguistic construction was nothing more than the result of a scribal error.

I love conjuring Lunt in my mind as he describes the situation to us.

“The candle was burning low. The poor monk had been without sleep for 24 hours. It was cold outside. No. It was freezing. The cell in which the monk worked was like a block of ice. A wolf howled outside his door. He took his mind off what he was doing for just one second, but when he turned his bleary eyes back to the page he had lost his connection to what he was doing. He wrote down the wrong letter. Scribal error. This is not an example of linguistic development.”

Sure enough, Lunt showed us similar situations in the same text, recorded by the same scribe, and all were correct. Only this one was wrong. Scribal error. Bleary eyes.

Horace Lunt and I were never close. I wasn’t of much interest to him, for my field of study was literature, not linguistics. He knew perfectly well that those of us studying literature just needed to get some requirements out of the way in order to go about doing what we were in graduate school to do. I don’t think he begrudged us that. It was merely another of those things about which nothing could be done — like scribal errors. If the latter could not be suffered, the former could.

I’ll go further in the interest of full disclosure and honesty. I did not much like Old Church Slavonic, which we all called OCS. Oh, there were things that fascinated me and stuck with me, like the fact that the name of Old King Wenceslaus from the Christmas carol can be demonstrated to be the same name as the Slavic Vyacheslav. But that’s the pop version of OCS. It’s pretty much all I retained in the way of the discipline’s science.

Which brings me to the point of this freeform remembrance: Horace Lunt had more influence on me than any other scholar I studied with. His rigor came through loud and clear during that first class I had with him in September 1983. I can still hear it in my head to this day.

Every time I fail to catch a typo, every time I fail to properly check a fact, every time I say “good enough,” only to learn later that I was less than exact, I remember Horace Lunt. Scribal error. For all that I never learned or retained from his truly extraordinary course in Old Church Slavonic, I was profoundly affected by his attitude, his approach, his honesty before himself, his colleagues and his work.

Horace Lunt had a fine, rich, productive long life. That is something to celebrate. What he gave his students and the world cannot be measured fully by anything, unless it is love.

That may be an odd word to use for one who was famously unsentimental. But what else could have driven this extraordinary man to such heights of perfection? What else would have allowed him to have such a lasting impact on all those fortunate enough to come even briefly into his orbit?

Sheep, Critic Meet Over Sam Shepard

Repost of Theater Plus blog No. 91. More on the fabulous Lee Breuer, this time largely through the eyes of Steven Leigh Morris, a prominent Los Angeles critic. My photo above shows Yekaterina Raikova translating for Morris during a press conference in Saratov. 

15 October 2010
By John Freedman

American director Lee Breuer opened his production of Sam Shepard’s “The Curse of the Starving Class” last week at the Saratov Theater Yunogo Zritelya. It was an event that brought in guests from around the world ― including directors, producers and critics from France, Germany, Bulgaria and the United States.

Two weeks ago I reported on how I spent a few days in Saratov as Breuer entered the final stretch of rehearsals before the Oct. 12 opener. Since one of the best theater critics in Los Angeles was on hand for that first night, I thought it made sense to turn this article over to him.

Steven Leigh Morris is an English-born playwright and critic who has covered the theater beat in Los Angeles for the L.A. Weekly for decades. (Out of curiosity, I asked how long it took him to lose his British accent, and he said, “Oh, a few seconds.”)

On the day following the opening of “The Curse of the Starving Class,” I pulled out my camera, Steven took up a position on the street in front of the theater and he shared his thoughts. Some were gems.

Morris compared “Starving Class” to Breuer’s famous production of “Mabou Mines Dollhouse,” an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s “The Dollhouse,” which“got turned inside out, upside down and rattled” in Breuer’s hands.

Shepard’s play, Morris said, was “filtered through an MTV parody of just about every myth that’s been carved out of the American Southwest.”

“I don’t know how Sam Shepard would feel about that, and I’m not absolutely sure how the Russian audiences felt about it,” the critic went on. But “people under 30 in the house were just eating it up, and the people over 30 looked generally perplexed.”

Morris was particularly impressed by Breuer’s use of a live sheep. The sheep “put in a breathtaking performance,” Morris noted, and not only because it literally chewed the scenery at times.

At one moment the sheep stood in a bathtub full of flowers, staring out over the audience with ― pardon the mixing of metaphors ― plaintive doe eyes. It was, Morris declared, the moment that the show “landed.” This was when he knew the show was “going to end well.”

Following a thought-scattering interruption by a man with a clacking cart going by us on the street, Morris came back with what I thought was his most daring and funniest observation.

“I don’t want to be overly sentimental,” the Los Angeles critic said, covering his backside in the event that anyone at home ever sees this video, “but there was something slightly spiritual about” Breuer’s use of the sheep.

Boom! Could there have been a tear in that critic’s eye? Naw…

Breuer himself knew perfectly well that he was going out on a limb with his radical interpretation of Sam Shepard. In an interview with the Saratov-based “Vzglyad” newspaper, he talked about how critics often misunderstand, or simply fail to understand, his work.

“I think we’ll probably catch it for this production, too,” he said. “There will people who will write that this is disgusting and not funny. That it is not theater but pornography.”

On the other hand, Breuer gave what may be the finest definition I have ever heard of the “avant-garde,” of which he has been a leader for 30 or more years.

“The word ‘avant-garde’ means ‘before the guard,’” Breuer explained. “And ‘guard’ here means an army. In other words, these are the people who get shot before the general army makes its move. They are the ones who lay down the road which everyone else will take. I’ve often taken bullets from various ‘snipers.’ Newspapers love to whale away at avant-garde theater directors.”

That may be true. But not this one.

To hear Steven Leigh Morris’ comments in their entirety, click on the picture below.

 

A New York Take on Moscow Theater

Repost of Theater Plus blog No. 90. This blog is the first “public” evidence of a huge project I was involved in for many years – the New American Plays for Russia program. It was pretty much in a nascent state at this time, and the topic of my video blog with Jim Nicola was not American drama, but Russian theater, as he encountered it in the fall of 2010 in Moscow. I took the photo above of Jim Nicola several years later when spending a summer in residence with his very cool New York Theater Workshop summer program at Dartmouth. 

11 October 2010
By John Freedman

If anyone knows anything about developing new work for theater, it is Jim Nicola.

Nicola has been the artistic director of the famed New York Theatre Workshop since 1988. He has overseen the premieres of new plays by such significant writers as Tony Kushner, Caryl Churchill and Doug Wright. He was instrumental in bringing the important Flemish director Ivo van Hove to work in the United States, and he nurtured and oversaw the development of one of the most influential American musicals in recent decades — Jonathan Larson’s “Rent.”

Last week Nicola was in Moscow with a group of American theater practitioners, all of whom had a specific goal in mind. As participants in New American Plays for Russia, an initiative funded by the U.S. embassy in Moscow under the auspices of the bilateral Russian-American presidential commission, they were here to find out all they could about the current state of theater and playwriting in Russia. They attended performances. They met with playwrights, directors, administrators, journalists and actors.

For the record, I know so much about this program because I am its director. As such, if you wish to doubt the value and veracity of what I have to say about it, you are welcome to do so.

Jim Nicola, though, is a different matter altogether. Rather like that old stock broker company, Jim is one of those individuals whom people listen to when he speaks.

On Saturday, as Jim was preparing to head out for the theater one last time, I asked him to sit down and tell me about what he had seen.

Valery Fokin’s “The Overcoat” at the Sovremennik Theater impressed him as a show that highlighted the vast differences between Russia and America. The show was, he said, “an image of someone struggling to gain something and then having it taken away.” This, he pointed out, was the opposite of what one might expect to see in American theater.

Another production that caught his eye was Mindaugas Karbauskis’ “A Stalemate Lasts But a Moment” at the National Youth Theater. This piece is a dramatization of Icchokas Meras’ novel about death and survival in a Jewish ghetto during World War II.

Suggesting that he thought he had seen enough about Nazi crimes, Nicola admitted that this particular work “surprised” him for the “new and interesting way” that it went about telling its story.

After attending productions of “The Cow” and “Donkey Hot” at the School of Dramatic Art, Nicola called director Dmitry Krymov a “unique character in the landscape,” whose graphic images were compelling and unlike anyone else’s.

To hear these and many more of Nicola’s comments on his week of observing Moscow theater, click on the picture below.

 

Lee Breuer Shakes Up Shepard in Saratov

Theater Plus blog No. 89. One of the many lucky, unplanned and unexpected encounters I have had over the years was my brief, but fascinating, shared time with Lee Breuer. Completely out of the blue in the fall of 2010 I received a phone call from Valery Raikov, the managing director of the Saratov Youth Theater (ID’d a bit differently below as per Moscow Times standards), who said they needed someone to come down immediately to work on the Russian text of Sam Shepard’s “The Curse of the Starving Class” just days before it was to open. I jumped at the chance and we jumped to work the instant that I arrived in Saratov. It was three days of work heaven as Lee, Maude Mitchell, translators Maria Storozhenko and Yekaterina Raikova and I worked almost around the clock to get the text to where Lee wanted it. That story remains to be told. For the time being, there is the story I told about Lee’s rehearsals. What a great time it was! Above is a photo I shot of Lee Breuer, right, and translator Maria Storozhenko discussing rehearsals of Sam Shepard’s “”The Curse of the Starving Class” at the Saratov Theater Yunogo Zritelya.

05 October 2010
By John Freedman

“See, I turn everything upside down. That’s how I do it,” the director told me during a break in rehearsals.

“That’s not how Sam Shepard does it,” the man went on. “Shepard likes good Irish acting. He likes actors playing the text.”

Just three days before this conversation took place I had no idea I would be sitting in a theater in Saratov, talking to the renowned American director Lee Breuer.

My schedule said I was to get on a plane in mid-October to fly down to see the premiere of Breuer’s production of Shepard’s “The Curse of the Starving Class” at the Saratov Theater Yunogo Zritelya. Fate, however, had something else in store for me.

Valery Raikov, the theater’s managing director, called me last week and asked if I could make a quick advance trip. Breuer, who does not speak Russian and is making his Russian directing debut in Saratov, wanted to get an outside opinion. Rehearsals, which began at the end of August, were going well, but questions were cropping up, too.

Breuer is no stranger to Russia.

“The Gospel at Colonus,” one of the landmarks of recent American theater and now running in its 30th year, played Moscow during the Theater Olympics in 2001.

Last year Breuer’s unorthodox, award-winning take on Henrik Ibsen’s “The Dollhouse” was a featured entry in the Stanislavsky Season theater festival.

Both of those shows were produced by Mabou Mines, a New York company that Breuer helped found.

All of that was buried deep in my memory by the time I arrived at the theater from the airport last week. Rehearsals were under way. Breuer sat far to the right, in about the 10th row, and a few other people were scattered around the house. An actor was preparing to launch into a scene — what turned out to be a rousing, five-minute, 40-second lip-synch rendition of Al Green belting out an astonishing live performance of the famous Sam Cooke song, “Change is Gonna Come.”

“What is this?” I thought.

It has been a while since I have seen “Curse” performed, but I didn’t remember Al Green in there.

That’s Lee Breuer, though, finding in plays what we had no idea existed.

“I want you working on your moonwalks!” Breuer told the actor through a translator. “This has to be like a rock concert on MTV!”

Breuer was all over the camera man, who was shooting the scene from behind the stage so that it was simultaneously projected on a wooden screen. The trick is that we see the actor coming and going, front and back. When his back is turned to us, we see a close-up of his face on the screen. When he’s facing us, we see him wiggling his butt at the camera.

“The camera can’t be static!” Breuer barked at the unseen man backstage. “You’ve got to follow his every move. We’ve got to see him when he’s on the ground. We’ve got to see him spinning around.”

The cameraman, responding by way of the stage manager, whose words were translated into English for the director, objected that the hole in the wall, through which he was filming, was too small to allow for that kind of movement.

“Then make the hole bigger! Make it as big as you need!” Breuer shouted energetically. “I need that camera moving! If you can’t do that, it’s boring! And I’ll have to cut the song!”

They ran through the scene again, and it was like someone had poured gasoline on it and tossed in a match. What five minutes before had been a simple musical number was now an incendiary, emotional blast that came crashing down on those of us sitting in the hall.

I was exhausted when the scene came to an end. “What an ending that’s going to be,” I thought. At least until Breuer came over to chat for a short moment.

“That’s the first scene,” he said. “What do you think?”

I laughed to myself and thought what I often think when I see a production by Lee Breuer: “I sure didn’t expect that!”

Over the course of three more days there were plenty more surprises.

Like seeing the young woman from the dysfunctional family Shepard is exploring suddenly rise up and do a dance on a sparkling chain in mid-air during a dream scene. Or seeing the same character fly, topsy-turvy in slow motion, across the stage, blown to smithereens by an explosion that two-bit bandits had meant for her father.

Or seeing both the girl and her brother turn into zombies stalking the stage as if they were escapees from “Night of the Living Dead.” Or seeing a sleazy attorney waltz onto the stage for the first time — a dead ringer for Elvis Presley, replete with sweeping hairdo and immaculate white jacket.

For the moment Al Green has been pushed aside, and now it’s the velvety, Las-Vegas-tinged voice of Elvis pulsating from the speakers. “It’s now or never / Come hold me tight / Kiss me darling / Be mine tonight…”

“How’s Elvis look?” Breuer asked me later. “Does that work?”

Did that work? Was Elvis king?

Breuer would have been better off asking me about the scene where Elvis leads a stage full of losers, drunks and thugs in a butt-wiggling dance as they exchange threats.

Actually, best he didn’t. By that time I was laughing too hard.

Lee Breuer’s production of Sam Shepard’s “The Curse of the Starving Class” plays at the Saratov Theater Yunogo Zritelya on Oct. 12 and 16 at 6 p.m. Tel. 7 (845) 226-1541.

Russian Answers to American Theatre’s Questions

Theater Plus blog No. 88. American Theatre magazine used to do a cool thing – posting interesting and sometimes provocative questions on their Facebook page. I think that practice fell by the wayside for some time, but I’ve noticed it has come back recently. Anyway, in response to these questions I always used (and continue to use) every opportunity to plug great Russian theater artists and writers, still unfairly unknown in the West. But some of the questions went deeper than just “who or what”? I put together a collection of AT questions and used them to write the blog you see below – there’s more than a little confession in what follows. Above: I snapped my wife Oksana Mysina holding up a just-purchased copy of the September issue of American Theatre magazine in a New York cafe.

28 September 2010
By John Freedman

American Theatre magazine has come up with a clever ploy to keep people interested in what it is up to in between issues. Every few days they post a question on their Facebook page and encourage their fans, of which there are 7,874 at this writing, to respond. I have not done so because my experience in Moscow is hardly comparable, and it would not mean much, to the magazine’s general readership.

On the other hand I have been itching to get in and have my say on a few topics.

So here they are ― my answers to a few questions posed by American Theatre over the past weeks.

Do you practice the “10-block rule,” which says you shouldn’t discuss what you thought of a play until you’re 10 blocks from the theater, lest someone involved or related overhear you?

I practice the get-home-alone-and-safe rule. Not because I don’t want anyone to overhear what I have to say, but because the instant that I walk out of a show, I don’t know yet what I want or need or even have to say.

This is an extremely intimate moment for me. For another hour at least, I remain in a state of open confusion and am highly receptive to anything ― any word that I hear, any glance that I see or offer myself. If someone says anything to me, or if I let myself formulate thoughts that are not yet clear, I find that this becomes a roadblock when I sit down to write.

I once attended the theater with Hedy Weiss, the theater critic of the Chicago Sun-Times. Hedy is a garrulous, friendly, bubbly person. Just as the lights began to dim, she turned to me and said, “Don’t think anything of this, but when the show ends I will bolt out of here. I will not say good-bye, and don’t say anything to me.”

I loved her for that, and I think of her every time someone runs up to me after a show and asks me breathlessly, “So! What did you think!?” At those moments, if looks could kill….

“Somebody once said that when you’re making theatre, your goal should either be to make people laugh so hard they wet themselves or cry so hard they can’t speak — but either way you end up with water.” From director Art Manke, in the new Denver Center Theatre program, talking about his production of “The 39 Steps.”

It’s a nice image ― reducing an audience to a puddle. I like it and I agree. A “dry” audience is one that hasn’t been touched. What’s the point of inviting people into your theater if you aren’t going to reach out and touch ― and pinch and punch and tickle ― a little?

Who does the theater belong to?

A difficult question. And answers will be very different in different cultures. In Russia I would say theater belongs to whoever is bold enough to seize it. After all, this is the way in Russia, a country that loves a strong hand. I hadn’t thought of that connection before, but I think it’s legitimate. As regards theater here, it can belong to the producer, if he or she is determined to wield control. It can belong to the director, as it often has over the last century. It can belong to the actor, as it did in the 19th century and, to some extent, does again in the present day. (Oleg Tabakov at the Moscow Art Theater, for instance, has turned that art house into a showcase for popular actors.) In some respects, it can belong to the audience.

Has a play ever profoundly changed your mind about something?

About politics? No. About morality? No. About aesthetics? Yes. My own opinion of my life? Yes.

Have you ever run into a critic who gave you a bad review? Paint the scene for us.

I have to turn this question around, of course, since there are people I have criticized who must run into me from time to time. But what sticks in memory is something slightly different. Here is the scene: I am working at my computer. The phone rings. I wince. I always wince when I am working and the phone rings. I answer the phone, because I always answer the phone, even when I am working. I hear an unknown voice asking to speak to me. I identify myself and the person says, “I just read your review of my latest show and I want to thank you.”

But this isn’t the story yet.

The story is this: These are directors whose work I have criticized, sometimes severely. The first time it happened I was flabbergasted. The second time I was curious. The third time it happened I began to realize there was something to it. A critic can disagree with a director, even strongly, but there is a way of disagreeing with respect and understanding. It’s quite surprising what happens if you succeed in doing that.

Have you ever enjoyed a play more upon later reflection than when you were watching it?

I don’t know if “enjoy” is the proper word, but I certainly see a play better in the first few hours after watching a performance. Theater is a living art, in which live people on a stage seek to affect live people sitting in a hall. The impact of that act cannot possibly cease to have its effect once the curtain closes. You take a show out the door with you and you take it home to bed with you that night. The better the show is, the more it refuses to leave you alone.

“Criticism begins not in knowledge but in ignorance. You can’t prepare for a new ballet, a new dancer, a new play, a new work of music, a new trend. Expertise won’t help you with the new; but an open mind will.” What do you think?

This was a fairly controversial statement, as it turned out. But I strongly agree with it. I think the worst critics are those who are loaded down with knowledge and all of the rules about how things should and should not be done. It is a critic’s job, in my opinion, to wipe the slate clean ― to the extent that that’s possible ― when you walk in the theater’s front door. Every work of art deserves to be perceived and understood on its own terms. You can’t do that when you walk into the theater loaded down with the terms of everyone else who has come before. When you find yourself sitting in the hall comparing what you are seeing to what you have read, witnessed, heard ― or, at least, when you let those impressions take control of what you are watching in the real moment ― you are already losing contact with the work at hand.

Comedy is a form of truth-telling, not a diversion from weighty matters of the day. Discuss. What part were you born to play?

That is surely what comedy would be in a more perfect world. Although that’s not why I’m answering this question. I just want to say to any directors out there that I am your King Lear. You can reach me through this newspaper.

Stillness speaks louder than movement onstage. True or false? Discuss.

Let’s put it this way: Less is quite often more. One of the most powerful performances I have seen in recent seasons was Alexander Porokhovshchikov playing the old father in Biljana Srbljanovic’s “Locusts” at the Pushkin Theater in 2008. For the most part, the actor sat motionless, expressionless and wordless in a chair, the incarnation of a riddle with a ghastly outcome. But he was the center of the whole performance. I heard later that the director, Roman Kozak, had offered the actor any of the roles in the play he wanted. Porokhovshchikov chose this one because, reportedly, he knew that it could be the most expressive of them all. It was.

Can scenic design make or break a show?

Boy, can it ever! I have seen shows utterly buried under the hubris of a designer. The first that comes to mind is Mikhail Mokeyev’s production of Heinrich von Kleist’s “The Prince of Homburg” at the Et Cetera Theater in 1998. Yury Kharikov, no matter how famous and how award-laden he was, simply buried this show under the most extravagant, irritating and anti-theatrical costumes I may ever have seen. I walked out of the theater and I had no idea what had happened there. All I could recall were costumes that bounced and ruffled and rustled and bloomed so aggressively that the actors ceased to exist.