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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bleak 'Columns' Nails Its Targets

"White Columns," Nikolai Gubenko's free adaptation of the bitterly satiric prose of Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin for the Commonwealth of Taganka Actors, is destined for controversy.


Many will hail it as a merciless expose of Russia's ills. Others will attack it as a sensationalist, political broadside. They will all be right. But there is no denying that Gubenko, an actor, film director and the last Soviet Culture Minister, has unfailingly captured in his first theatrical staging the bile, the chancres and the malevolence lurking beneath the surface of contemporary Russian life.


That is not an evaluation. In fact, this relentless, even savage production is so self-contained and so self-justifying, it almost defies evaluation.


Yes, Gubenko skillfully plays with rhythms of motion and creates striking visual images; and yes, the acting on the whole is strong. The powerful music selected from Shostakovich, Schnittke, Rachmaninoff and others is used well, while Anatoly Remizov's harsh lighting gives a menacing feel to Alexander Orlov's "unstable" set of enormous architectural columns which fall and rise around a long banquet table that niftily transforms into a stylized orator's soapbox or a parliamentary dais.


But that is not what you take away from this performance. Instead, you are haunted by the disturbing memory of its unending stream of stupid, vile, unredeemed and unredeemable people.


There is the sadistic Doctor (Tatyana Zhukova-Kirtbaya) who rules her insane asylum with a whipping stick ever at hand; there is Sila Terentich (Vyacheslav Pilnikov), the sinister old leader of the asylum inmates who is replaced by Pyrkov (Lev Butenin), a Yeltsin clone whose revolution "destroys his homeland to get praise in foreign newspapers," before plunging everything into chaos; there are the corrupt members of a "secret society" whose congress turns into a black farce before Pyrkov strongarms them into submission.


Wandering in horrified amazement through this Danteesque assemblage of thugs with names like Mr. Shyster and Mr. Bootlicker, is the young Provincial, who drank himself to death out of despair. But his demise in a drunken stupor gives him the power to return for a look at the living. Often accompanied by his cloying friend Prokop (Mikhail Lebedev), that is what he does, giving the production its episodic nature. Andrei Kaikov plays the dead man as a sensitive innocent, providing some rare moments of harmony.


The text, compiled by Gubenko with help from Leonid Filatov, is about as subtle as a flying mallet. Heavily salted with telltale words such as "parliament," "referendum," "reforms" and "constitution," there is no mistaking that Saltykov's 19th-century prose has been updated. So bleak and bilious is the picture it paints, it leaves nothing and no one unscathed. And its anguished, cynical view of Russian power-plays certainly assumes that the director included himself among the targets.


"White Columns" cannot be ignored. It may often be unpleasant and overwrought, but it is always ruthlessly honest.


"White Columns" (Belye stolby), a production of the Commonwealth of Taganka Actors, continues through Monday and will repeated Jan. 7, at 7 P.M. at the Taganka Theater New Stage, Taganskaya Square. Tel. 915-1148. Running time: 3 hours.