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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Turgenev's Tale Captured in Detail

"The Freeloader" at the Yermolova Theater begins with the crystalline tinkling of a high-pitched bell. The small, curtainless stage depicts the exquisitely detailed and richly furnished drawing room of a provincial, 19th-century Russian estate. Tiny, carefully wrought figurines stand on small, elegant tables, and the walls are decorated with miniature landscapes.


Were it not for the forbidding influence of the so-called fourth wall -- that invisible veil separating actors from spectators -- you might well be tempted to leave your seat in the hall and cross the homey, inviting stage to find out whom the bell is summoning.


That, of course, is just what Vladimir Andreyev was after when he staged this early and largely forgotten play by the great novelist Ivan Turgenev. Aided by designer Vladimir Serebrovsky and an excellent cast, he revived the long-gone life of another era and plunged us right into the heart of it.


It is an old-fashioned story, and one of the charms of Andreyev's version is that it is played as straight as an arrow. Irony and caricature, like fine spices, are used only in slight pinches, so that what we get are highly individualized people and moving situations that may be out-of-date, but are all the more striking for their historical veracity.


Vasily Kuzovkin, the "freeloader," is an impoverished landowner who for years has lived in the home of a now-deceased neighbor, waiting in vain for a court battle over his land to be settled. His status had always been something of a domestic jester, but now that Yelena, the young lady of the house, has brought home a new husband, his situation has taken a turn for the worse. In the past he at least had certain ties to the old master, but now he is essentially an unwanted stranger in a stranger's home.


As the old Kuzovkin, Vladimir Zamansky shows an uncanny ability to get under his character's skin, reflecting his humiliation, his sadness, his humor and his dignity. Small in stature, with large, gentle hands and probing eyes, Zamansky is impeccable as the man who has subordinated all of his pride and desires to the necessity of subsisting in the shadow of his life's brightest moment and biggest shame: He is, in fact, the father of Yelena (Vasilisa Pyavko), although almost no one believes him when the secret finally slips out.


That secret, and the complications which arise when it is revealed, are mere levers in the traditional plot. What gives them the power of insight is the way they reveal the inner workings of different personalities.


Viktor Sarakvasha is infuriatingly ruthless as Tropachyov, the superficial and mean-spirited neighbor who delights in humiliating old Kuzovkin for sport. As Pavel Yeletsky, Yelena's self-satisfied groom, Alexei Sheinin works finely in the gray areas floating between muted cruelty and half-hearted kindness, propriety and priggishness. He can't quite condone Tropachyov's pitiless tricks, but he enjoys them too much to stop them in time.


Meanwhile, a whole other universe exists in what may have been the production's biggest success of all: the cares and behind-the-scenes world of the servants. Their stifled whispers, doused smiles, rustling dresses and hurried glances add up to a symphony of sights and sounds that make the life in this house endlessly fascinating and touchably real.


Anything but a mere museum piece, "The Freeloader" is a well-turned miniature, a Fab?rg?-egg of a look back at a very different Russia which we may think we know, but which we seldom see in such clear and close detail.





"The Freeloader" (Nakhlebnik) plays May 27 at 7 p.m. at the Yermolova Theater, 5 Tverskaya Ulitsa. Tel. 202-3926. Running time: 2 hours, 25 mins.