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.