Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Energy and Experience: An Actor's Best Friends

Vasily Bochkaryov is moving energetically in circles around the tiny kitchen of what he calls his bachelor pad, the place where he goes when he needs to work in peace and quiet.


He gestures boldly with his arms, plops down in a chair demonstratively to punctuate what he is saying and then hammers on the wall, laughing, to make sure you got the full impact of his last point.


Even if you did not see this man's imposing performance of Boris Godunov in this season's sweeping production of "Tsar Boris" at the Maly Theater, you could not possibly doubt that he is an actor.


If you have seen "Tsar Boris," or any other of Bochkaryov's powerful roles for that matter, you begin to understand the source of the incredible intensity he brings to the stage.


Bochkaryov, 52, has been around. And all of it, the good and the bad, has been filed away for future use. As he puts it, an actor's duty, besides "leaving the child in you to the very grave," is to know himself.


Thirty years of professional acting has taught him plenty.


He has worked with several of Russia's top directors, among them, Andrei Goncharov, Boris Lvov-Anokhin and Anatoly Vasilyev.


He has been caught in political traps, such as when he quit the Stanislavsky Theater in 1979 to protest the firing of Lvov-Anokhin on "ideological" grounds.


As recently as 1990, he was even completely out of work: The Maly, his professional home since 1979, closed down every show he was working in that year.


Through it all, Bochkaryov's philosophy has remained simple. He compares himself to a working man, and his profession to manual labor.


"I get a role and I work on it like a peasant who plants a seed," he says. "I till, and I till, and I till. Whatever you did last year is gone. And you don't know what lies ahead."


But bring the conversation around to "Boris," and the expressive Bochkaryov hesitates. Not because he is avoiding something, but because even he is in awe of the character he plays, and he wants to make himself clear.


"I do not play Boris, and we are not trying to recreate him in our show," Bochkaryov says. "We are creating a myth. This was an extremely complex man and no one really knows who he was."


Godunov, whose short reign initiated the Time of Troubles in the early 17th century, was indeed an enigma.


As the first "liberal" leader that Russia had, he sought to open the country to western influence.


But Godunov was soon felled by the persistent legend that he had murdered the last tsar's son to win the throne.


The Maly's production of Alexei Tolstoy's play essentially accepts that legend as truth.


When Bochkaryov was cast in the role, the first thing he did was make a pilgrimage to the tsar's grave.


There he "begged forgiveness" of Godunov for "using his name to create a myth." He still spends much of the day in church before every performance.


For the actor, the theme of repentance and mercy is the point of the show. And the central moment in his performance is when the doomed Boris begs absolution for his crime.


"That image of Boris on his knees is what is most important for our time," says Bochkaryov. "It applies to every Russian. We weren't there when the last tsar was murdered, but our ancestors were. And their tacit guilt is alive in us."


Bochkaryov's sense of personal responsibility -- to history as well as to his job -- is what gives his characters such impact and makes them so believable.


He is blessed with that vague but indispensible actor's ability to assume the essence of another while always remaining himself.


Bochkaryov's powers of transformation as an actor even affect his physical appearance. Although he is a man of average height in real life, Vasily Bochkaryov looks like a giant under stage lighting.


Even when he is on his knees.