I Don't Need a Doctor, Thank You, I'm Acting

I've seen some pretty weird things over the last few weeks in St. Petersburg's theaters: four talking babies crammed into high-rise cardboard boxes; a huge, undulating soapy bathtub populated by customs officials demanding documents from buck-naked ladies; a man with a bass drum instead of a head; and two female midgets with pig-snouts climbing out of a chest of drawers.


But one aspect of my recent theater-going experience has been far more terrifying and fantastical than all the others combined: the acting.


It has always been a source of great puzzlement for me that the country that produced Stanislavsky, the patron saint of the muted "method" approach to acting, is now dominated by an overblown style that would hardly have seemed out of place on the melodramatic stages of the 19th century.


Take, for example, "Hotel Room in the City of N" -- an "experimental" version of Gogol's "Dead Souls" adapted and directed by Moscow guru Valery Fokin -- whose lead actor is a gentleman who goes by the curious name of Avangard Leontyev.


Throughout the piece, Avangard mugged, leered, shrieked, laughed hysterically, grinned moronically, slavered like a dog, pouted and rolled his eyes as if impaled on a white-hot, sharpened poker and waved his chin about frenetically as if using it to hail an entire fleet of taxi cabs. In short, Avangard looked like he was having some kind of severe catatonic fit and needed medical assistance. I'm not sure whether the audience at the end of the show was applauding his performance or the fact that he was still alive.


Such obscene, supremely artificial antics -- on display, to a lesser or greater degree, at the majority of St. Petersburg theaters -- are exactly what Stanislavsky was trying to bury with his radical theories, which aimed to immerse each performance in the actor's reservoir of real-life experience. So, what on earth is going on?


"The same ideas are just interpreted in a different way in Russia," explains St. Petersburg critic Yura Kobitz. "Here, actors prefer to act much more with their hearts and to go out more to their audiences. Russians are much more emotional. It therefore follows that their acting will be more emotional too. Stanislavsky doesn't change this basic fact."


Which brings me neatly to the second part of my Russian theater query: How can the country that nurtured the director Vsevolod Meyerhold, one of the most influential, innovative geniuses of the 20th century, now applaud Valery Fokin's ludicrous drum-head folk and snouted midgets? And how can a mildly diverting puppet troupe -- the French Phillippe Genty company, who recently visited St. Petersburg with their bevy of talking papier-mache babies -- be hailed here as ground-breaking and "post-modern"? Answers on a postcard please ...