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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Old Love Triangle Gains a Vibrant New Angle

What is it with plays by the late Alexei Arbuzov these days? The once-fantastically popular Soviet playwright had completely disappeared until his "What a Lovely Sight!" was revived with unexpected and resounding success a year ago at the Theater Na Maloi Bronnoi.

This year it is his 1965 play, "My Poor Marat," in a strikingly fresh interpretation at the Mossoviet Theater, which has suddenly got people talking.

Marat, Lika and Leonidik are teenagers during the siege of Leningrad. Utterly alone, and thrown together by circumstance, they become fast friends whose relationship deepens and becomes inextricably tangled over the course of the next 20 years. Arbuzov undeniably created a disarmingly ingenuous story, but there is no denying that his situations and characters still bear that mushy, generic Soviet stamp.

Enter Andrei Zhitinkin, who happily and with a healthy dose of self-irony tabs himself "Moscow's most scandalous director." That surely is overstating it, but the ebullient Zhitinkin has indeed garnered his share of detractors, in part for brashly fiddling in semi-taboo subjects, but more for churning out some garish spectacles that have had as much substance as cotton candy.

Maybe Zhitinkin has slowly been inching toward that moment when he would finally put it all together, or maybe "My Poor Marat" is a detour in an uneven career. Whatever the case, it is a scintillating show that entertains as completely as it reveals the inner workings of three fascinating and highly modern characters.

That's right, modern. The play's action runs from the early 1940s to the early 1960s, but one of Zhitinkin's several triumphs was to forge a thoroughly contemporary atmosphere without violating the historical fabric of the original. Marat, Lika and Leonidik are recognizably children of the war generation and adults of the '60s generation, but they are presented through a filter with a 1990s sensibility.

Arbuzov wrote about a love triangle in which two men fall in love with a woman who loves one, but marries the other. Zhitinkin complicated things considerably. You'll never find the proof, but hints abound that Marat (Alexander Domogarov) and Leonidik (Andrei Ilyin) are as much in love with each other as with Lika (Larisa Kuznetsova).

Confused glances, lingering embraces, little secrets kept from the inquiring Lika, and Marat's refusal or inability to return Lika's love -- all of these moments, and more, clearly open up the possibility of a homosexual twist to the play. But it is the ambiguity of things which gives the production its emotional and cathartic thrust: The real point is that all of them love each other, and that there is no way of putting labels on their love.

Domogarov and Ilyin turn in wonderfully sensitive performances that capture all the ragged edges of uncertainty and the clumsy grace natural to young men trapped by true love.

Then there is Larisa Kuznetsova's incomparable Lika. A Roman candle of energy, excitability and impulsiveness, Kuznetsova also has a range that allows her to flawlessly plumb the depths of a resilient woman who overcomes life's hard knocks by the force of will. Her thrilling, liberating and comic performance tops off the all-around, first-rate production.

The costumes and set by Andrei Sharov, at first entirely in varying shades of white, attractively suggest the purity and innocence of the characters and their insular world. Bits of color only begin creeping in later when life's realities also intrude.

"My Poor Marat" is an ideal example of how to go about finding the new in the old. Arbuzov's play supplied a touching, well-crafted basis, and Zhitinkin yanked it into the present with a boldly modern interpretation that never abuses its sensitivity.

"My Poor Marat" (Moi bedny Marat), directed by Andrei Zhitinkin, plays June 8 and 11 at 7 p.m. on the Stage Beneath the Roof at the Mossoviet Theater, 16 Bolshaya Sadovaya. Tel. 200-5943. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.