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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'Waiting for Hamlet': An Unorthodox Reading

What is going on at the Taganka Theater?

Yury Lyubimov, its renowned founder, only rarely deigns to visit Moscow from his home in Israel. Recently he staged his first new Taganka show in two years -- Euripides's "Medea" -- but it opened at a festival in Athens and then Lyubimov abruptly canceled four Moscow performances scheduled for June.

But make no mistake, the Taganka is stirring. Nestled among the repertoire of old standards, at least one of which has been running for 20 years, several unfamiliar titles have quietly appeared.

The most recent, an intriguing foray into Shakespeare called "Waiting for Hamlet," has now joined productions of "The School for Wives" and "Without Columbine," as well as last season's haunting "I'm Better Off Speaking."

All were mounted by young members of the troupe or at least young people with ties to the Taganka through the Shchukin Institute, the school which originally spawned the Taganka in 1964. None have anything to do with Lyubimov, except that he has found no reason to exclude them from the Taganka marquee.

"Waiting for Hamlet," directed by Alexander Moiseyev, is a swift, imaginative gallop through the story about a Danish prince who learns that his father, the king, was killed in a court coup, but is unable to muster an adequate response.

Taking frequent liberties with the play, this production refreshens it rather than overshadowing or obscuring it. With the actors playing in a space teasingly reminiscent of a monastery, and dressed in an eclectic mix of medieval-style wedding costumes and simple modern designs, everything takes on a sleek, abstract and contemporary look.

The men's jeans, jackboots and baggy black sweaters are an obvious nod to Lyubimov's 1971 production of "Hamlet" which starred Vladimir Vysotsky in the title role. Meanwhile, like so many of the best shows around town this season, "Waiting for Hamlet" plays to a small audience in an unorthodox setting: the foyer in the building's old wing where the Lyubimov/Vysotsky "Hamlet" was once performed.

Spectators, sit in a semi-circle facing three sets of stairs, two short inclines leading to the coat racks and one long stairwell leading to the second floor. Every inch of possible acting space is used, including a corridor and fourth set of stairs to the audience's right.

When things commence, there is no need to wait long for Hamlet, the Shakespeare look-alike Anton Lutsenko. He immediately takes a seat in a corner where he immerses himself in reading a book, oblivious to what is happening around him. The others whip crisply and lightly through the text, occasionally taking over his lines.

Standing on the long stairwell, candles in hand, the usurping King Claudius (Alexei Grabbe) and his new bride Gertrude (Yelena Laskavaya) lead the entire cast minus Hamlet in something like the Lord's Prayer. The text is Hamlet's famous "To-be-or-not-to-be" speech, which is repeated several times throughout the evening, elevating Shakespeare's immortal words to the level of a leitmotif.

The yes-man Polonius (Igor Pekhovich) -- now serving Claudius with the same unprincipled goodwill that he presumably showed the last monarch -- occasionally leads everyone in lilting songs and circular, spinning dances. It is as if to say, "Everything is fine; we have no problems here."

When Lutsenko's Hamlet finally emerges from his reverie, he appears as a soft-spoken intellectual with a quick mind. He is not so much incapable of taking action -- the traditional interpretation -- as he seems doubtful that there is any point to it. And while this prince sees only too well the treacheries surrounding him, he never succumbs to despair or disillusionment.

Amid the uniformly strong cast, Yelena Litvinova stands out memorably as Ophelia. She is never the vague, romantic waif we so often see, but is alert, subtle and intelligent, a woman more than worthy to be Hamlet's match. Litvinova's final scenes border on the brilliant. Her descent into madness is never hysterical or pitiful, but is played with supreme understatement and concrete detail.

Is this "Hamlet," together with the other new shows at the Taganka, the sign of a moribund theater coming back to life? It's too early to be sure, but there can be no doubt that the hallowed halls of one of the world's most famous theaters are attracting a new generation of talent.

"Waiting for Hamlet" (V ozhidanii Gamleta) plays June 30 at 7 p.m. at the Taganka Theater, Taganskaya Ploshchad. Tel. 915-1217. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.