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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Play About Lives of Lies and Fear

Sergei Kokovkin wrote his first play, "The Simpleton," when the Kremlin was sending an onslaught of tanks and troops to subdue some pesky renegades. That action, which caused a lot of hand-wringing, but no coherent response, from the world at large, was greeted locally with nothing more than a ripple of dissent, followed by silent concurrence.

No, it was not December 1994, as the Chechnya campaign was beginning; it was 1968, when Soviet tanks were rolling into Prague.

And that is why this fine play has only now come to light. Twenty-seven years ago Kokovkin showed it to one of the Soviet Union's leading playwrights, who said something like, "This is a great play. Put it in your desk drawer and leave it there."

That's what Kokovkin did, continuing with his acting career before once again succumbing to the impulse to write. Since the 1970s, he has penned several plays, which have been staged by well-known directors, ranging in style from Kama Ginkas to Roman Viktyuk.

But as contemporary life increasingly reveals an underbelly streaked with the same kind of corruption, lies, fear and silence that has frequently pervaded the Russian experience, Kokovkin felt the time to stage "The Simpleton" had come. Again.

So it is that the play has finally made its bow at the small Laboratory Theater, under the author's own direction.

It is an allegory about those who -- believing fully in their independence -- enthusiastically do what they are told and seldom question orders.

Such a state of affairs is entirely natural for the world these people inhabit, for they are actors in a theater. In fact, in this world, the more obedient you are, the more perfectly you carry out commands, and the more effectively you transform into another being, the better respected you are.

This is no mere variation on Shakespeare's claim that "all the world's a stage." Deceptively merry in the circus-like atmosphere and puppet-show ambience of Irina Balashevich's set and costumes, it is a constricted, finite, and ultimately, sinister universe.

The Director (Vladimir Shevyakov) hands out roles as if he could do otherwise if he wanted. The Leading Lady (Natalya Kislitsyna), the Heroine (Olesya Potashinskaya), the Raisonneur (Alexander Mazurenko) and the Stunt Man (Valery Zadonsky) all play their parts as if they had the power to play others. Impersonating a daring rebel, the Simpleton (Sergei Nazimov) finds he cannot rebel against his role.

They are the victims who, in their impotence, perpetrate the evil of their world. And they are carefully manipulated by the diabolical Fop (Boris Tokarev), who coerces the Simpleton into setting the theater afire, and the brutal Fireman (Andrei Starodumov), who sets in motion a trial that sentences the Heroine to death.

The absurdity and the malevolence of the trial scenes clearly capture the play's essence. The Fireman, perhaps the figure most removed from the business of theater, seizes control of everyone with the crack of a whip and a slogan declaring that "art demands sacrifices." But even more shocking is what happens when he apparently dies in a fall from a ladder: The actors refuse to stop the trial, although they know there is no reason to continue.

Eventually the Simpleton makes one last effort to break free. But, trapped in a mask he cannot remove and unsure that his words are even his own, he has no recourse but to lament bitterly that he is "a dead man among the dead."

"The Simpleton" is a solid, convincing performance of a remarkable play whose grim and highly theatrical vision has acquired the glow of timelessness in the quarter-century since it was written.

"The Simpleton" (Prostak) is a production of the Laboratory Theater at the AZLK House of Culture, 46/15 Volgogradsky Prospekt. For a schedule of upcoming performances call 179-3057. Running time: 2 hours, 5 mins.