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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Behind the Mirror, A Shining Playwright

When Yelena Gremina heard last winter that opera diva Galina Vishnevskaya would be starring in her new play, she was astonished.


"I couldn't have been more surprised if someone had told me the Statue of Liberty was going to play the lead," jokes the writer whose play, "Behind the Mirror," was a popular success when staged last season at the Chekhov Art Theater with Vishnevskaya playing Catherine the Great.


"I adore Vishnevskaya," Gremina continued wih girlish amazement, referring to the woman who, along with her husband Mstislav Rostropovich, is not only one of the top Russian artists of our time, but also gained an international reputation as a champion of human rights.


"I consider her a model of womanhood and beauty," said Gremina, "a symbol of splendor. Here was this woman who was making history when I was a kid, and then I find out she's going to be starring in my play."


In addition to delighting Gremina, 39, Vishnevskaya's acceptance of the offer to play Catherine suddenly shined the glare of publicity on the playwright. Not all of it was positive. Many in Moscow's stable of perennially dour critics turned up their noses at Gremina and Vishnevskaya for creating what they carped was just one more "commercial" show.


But if the critics missed the point, failing to appreciate the irony, tenderness and unobtrusive wisdom of Gremina's story about Catherine's tragic love affair with a man half her age, audiences were more perceptive.


Before shows, crowds gathered on the street outside the theater, clamoring to buy the rare extra ticket. Inside, the house was buoyed by a genuinely festive air. Similar scenes were recently played out during the show's mid-summer tour of Omsk, and things likely will not change when "Behind the Mirror" opens again in Moscow in October.


Gremina was caught off-guard by the success of the play, the fifth of six she has written since 1984. Until its premiere in February, she was what she herself ironically calls "famous among select circles."


It is a situation she says all contemporary playwrights know well.


"We are well-known among the literary directors at theaters and the editors at journals who publish us. Someone, somewhere is always said to be producing our plays, although nothing ever comes of it. The prestige of writing plays in Russia is very low."


"Wheel of Fortune," Gremina's third and favorite play, is a case in point. Highly praised by those who know it, the play has only been produced at two tiny, almost invisible studios. Since it was written in 1989, numerous major theaters throughout Russia have rehearsed it, including the Mossoviet Theater in Moscow. All to no avail.


Shrugging her shoulders and flashing her typical quick wit, she quips, "I don't know what happened to it. Probably the same thing that happens to youth and money."


The spell was finally broken by Vyacheslav Dolgachyov, a young director to whom Gremina owes a "tremendous amount." While others mouthed praise, made promises and did nothing, Dolgachyov produced results. He directed two Gremina plays last season: "The Case of Cornet O," performed as "Russian Eclipse" at the Pushkin Theater, and "Behind the Mirror."


The success of the latter caused it to be picked up quickly by three other Moscow theaters, creating the extraordinary situation of one play being performed simultaneously in four different productions.


But popularity is not likely to change Gremina, whose name is actually a pseudonym based on her father's name and her mother's maiden name of Mindadze. She lives in an apartment that may pack more literary talent per square meter than any in Moscow, but she didn't want any breaks she didn't earn.


Her father Anatoly Grebnev, and her brother Alexander Mindadze, are two of Russia's most respected film scriptwriters. Meanwhile, her husband, Mikhail Ugarov, is a playwright for whom a bright future is also predicted.


Even Gremina's son by a previous marriage, Alexander, has just entered the Gorky Literary Institute. Like his mom, he's not telling anyone who his relatives are. Because, like his mom, if he makes it big, he wants to do it on his own.