Gaft Is Coolly Powerful as Stalin

Sovremennik TheaterGaft, one of Russia's most beloved actors, wrote and stars in the play.
For all the talk -- quite legitimate, I might add -- about the bold playwrights who have helped reshape Russian theater in the 2000s, one thing has been curiously lacking: plays that take on political themes. There was an anthology published four years ago called "Putin.doc," but none of its nine so-called "revolutionary" plays has found success in theaters.

Joseph Stalin has been the sole figure from Russian political history to be explored more or less directly in the theatrical process. Now the Sovremennik Theater has unveiled its second play about Stalin in the last few seasons. But the author this time is no angry young man seeking to make a reputation. Instead it is Valentin Gaft, one of the Sovremennik's leading actors and one of Russia's most beloved film and stage performers of the last 50 years.

Sovremennik Theater
Gaft, one of Russia's most beloved actors, wrote and stars in the play.
That Gaft can wield a pen will surprise no one. He is celebrated for his sharply satirical epigrams about famous personalities. But, as far as I can discern, "Gaft's Dream Retold by Viktyuk" is his first foray into writing plays. As it turns out, he does that well, too.

In "Gaft's Dream," Stalin is a figure who stalks the imagination of many. Perhaps this, indeed, is someone's dream. Perhaps it is a Dante-like journey through the afterlife. Stalin confronts, or is confronted by, a historian, a general, a poet and the horrors of his own memory.

Gaft himself plays Stalin in one of the most coolly powerful performances I have seen this season. It is the coolness that creates the power. No one seeks to make Gaft look like Stalin. The actor performs in blue jeans and a blue button-down shirt open at the collar. There is no makeup and no famous mannerisms except for the lightest of Georgian accents. This performance is all about an actor finding it in himself to inhabit a frame of mind and a historical epoch.

Things begin as Gaft -- not yet Stalin -- declares that Stalin summoned him in a dream and that "now I live in him and he lives in me." Huge metal doors on the second tier of Vladimir Boyer's jungle-gym set rumble open and slam shut with a thundering shudder. Gaft, becoming Stalin, enters into banter with a quick-footed man whose clipped, high-pitched voice sounds suspiciously familiar.

Before long, we recognize this second man as Eduard Radzinsky (Alexander Filippenko), the playwright, television star and historian who has written biographies of many Russian leaders, Stalin included. It is a comic moment when that realization comes, and the audience laughs. But despite the fact that the early going is often humorous, laughter does not often come. The more deeply Gaft inhabits the intense, ominous figure of Stalin, the more sinister the jokes begin to sound.

"Do you love me? Do you hate me?" Stalin asks Radzinsky.

"I fear you," the historian replies after a lengthy, weighted pause.

It is fear -- not a wild, animal fear, but rather a knowing, composed fear -- that hangs in the air over the stage. It colors everything and gives second and third meanings to everything that is said. This, I repeat, is achieved entirely thanks to Gaft's extraordinarily reserved performance. Only once or twice does he give free reign to his anger and even then just for brief explosions. His Stalin is an enigma -- appearing quite human on the surface and yet, step by step, revealing himself capable of monstrous deeds. His tete-a-tete with the World War II hero Marshal Georgy Zhukov, his conflict with the great poet Anna Akhmatova, his encounter with the sycophantic Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov and other such meetings occurring across the expanses of time and space slowly reveal Stalin to be a man stricken by disease and capable of infecting others with it.

Filippenko plays all of Stalin's various opponents with a variety that Stalin cannot, by nature, allow himself. Filippenko is funny as Radzinsky and Zyuganov, slightly confused as the comic writer Mikhail Zhvanetsky and an equal sparring partner as Marshal Zhukov.

Director Roman Viktyuk has created a show in which silence and pauses are every bit as important as spoken words. It is in these moments that Gaft's performance can chill to the bone.

At the age of 73, Valetin Gaft not only reminded us of his acting prowess, he has entered the ranks of one of Russia's most interesting new playwrights.

"Gaft's Dream Retold by Viktyuk" (Son Gafta, Pereskazanny Viktyukom) plays Tues., March 9 and 18 at 7 p.m. at the Sovremennik Theater, 19A Chistoprudny Bulvar. Metro Chistiye Prudy. Tel. 628-7749.