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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

City Theaters Drift Far From the Cutting Edge

Adrian Hall, the artistic director of the Trinity Repertory Theater in Providence, Rhode Island, decided last year he could no longer handle the theater he had brought to national recognition. So he resigned.

Two years ago, when Germany's Peter Stein had a falling-out with the administration at the Berlin Schaubuhne, where he was the artistic director, he resigned.

The changing of the guard in theaters the world over is much the same. Nothing lasts foever and when it's time to go, you go. It's a natural process that injects new blood into a theater's system and is often a way for talented directors to escape creative ruts.

Not so in Moscow, where -- as it has been done in the Kremlin from time immemorial -- the guard seems to change only by death or deposing.

That may not automatically be bad, but in these volatile, post-Soviet days, most of this city's key theaters continue to plod along as they have for decades. All have their occasional hits and their loyal followings, but none are at the cutting edge of the theatrical art. And that is a come down, since each of them, at one time or another in the past, has been a trendsetter.

In a word, there is plenty going on in Moscow theater, but little of it is to be found at the big-name playhouses.

The dean of the directors is Valentin Pluchek, who, at 86, has run the Satire Theater since 1957. Next in line is Andrei Goncharov, 77, the top man at the Mayakovsky Theater since 1967. Thanks largely to troupes full of popular actors, neither venue has trouble selling tickets, but artistically both are treading water. And with the two captains running tight ships, there seems to be no limit to how long they can keep drifting in calm seas.

On the other hand, rancorous power struggles in recent times almost became a way of life at some theaters, although usually it was much ado about nothing. The most publicized case was the tussle at the Bolshoi Theater where Yury Grigorovich was finally ousted after years of talk and rumors, but Moscow's drama theaters have been no less dramatic.

Coups or uprisings swept away elderly leaders at the Vakhtangov and the Maly Theaters in the late 1980s, but the replacements, Mikhail Ulyanov, 68, and Yury Solomin, 60, respectively, did little to change their theaters' profiles. A row at the Yermolova in 1989 has left that once-proud house crippled and divided to the present day. The noisiest tussles occurred at the Moscow Art Theater and the Taganka Theater.

In 1987 the prestigious Art Theater shocked the public when its troupe voted to split in two. Some remained in the historic, art nouveau building on Kamergersky Pereulok with Oleg Yefremov, taking the name of the Chekhov Art Theater. The rest followed the popular actress Tatyana Doronina to a newly-built location on Tverskoi Bulvar, retaining the original name of the Gorky Art Theater.

Doronina, now 62, sports a r?sum? fit for a Politburo member, holding the posts of managing, chief and artistic director. Never having been anything but an actress when she became an administrator, she has done little to distinguish her theater aside from occasionally supporting nationalist political groups.

Yefremov, 68, was once the knight in shining white armor called to save an aging theater. Now, in poor health largely because of a drinking habit no one mentions in more than a whisper, he holds that most familiar of old Soviet reputations: praised and honored in public, ridiculed in private.

It is a shocking and ignominious turnaround.

A man whose courage and sincerity few would question, Yefremov was one of the finest actors to emerge in the 1950s. He was also the mastermind behind the Sovremennik Theater, which from the late 1950s through the 1960s was a national icon and a fantastically popular phenomenon. Its youthful, upbeat, probing shows captured the spirit of the Thaw generation.

It was at the peak of his powers, in 1970, that Yefremov was appointed to head the Moscow Art Theater and inject some youth into the 73-year-old institution. But it didn't work. The once-innovative playhouse founded in 1898 by Konstantin Stanislavsky and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko was hopelessly trapped in the mire of trying to live up to its past. When the breakup came in 1987, the stakes were for power rather than artistic integrity.

This May, a pair of young directors, Roman Kozak and Dmitry Brusnikin, were named Yefremov's assistants with augmented powers. But instead of creating real change, the move can be expected to mostly fuel talk about successors. Although as the Art Theater makes grandiose plans to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 1998, it seems certain that Yefremov will be at the helm when it limps into its second century.

The Taganka wars have followed their own scenario, but the results have been just as fruitless. With world-renowned director and founder Yury Lyubimov, 78, spending so much time abroad, many in his troupe despaired that they would be left without work.

So they rallied around Nikolai Gubenko, 54, a Taganka actor who served briefly as the Taganka's artistic director before Lyubimov returned from exile in 1988. Gubenko promised to keep and create jobs and, after a bitter court battle with Lyubimov, won control of half of the Taganka in 1993.

The reality has been more sobering than the promises. In two years, Gubenko's Commonwealth of Taganka Actors has produced three productions of dubious artistic value, all of which flopped at the box office.

Meanwhile, Lyubimov's troupe continues to stagnate. His recent production of "Medea," the first he has done with the Taganka in two years, played only a few times in Greece, and most of his actors remain idle. Some recent independent projects carried out by youngsters in the troupe have shown promise, but it remains to be seen whether that is a real sign of rejuvenation for the Taganka.

This is the second in a series of four articles exploring the state of Russian theater. Next week: The names and theaters that are paving the way to the future.