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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

In City Theater, All the World's a Small Stage

It was a sign of the early post-Soviet period. Currency exchange windows started popping up in the entryways to theaters like paparazzi at Cannes.

And the Lenkom Theater, long one of the city's leaders in fashion, was at the avant-garde of the movement. But before anybody else had the chance, the Lenkom took the next step. It closed down its state-of-the-art small stage and rented it out to a night club.

That was then, as the song goes, and this is now.

These days a theater without a small stage -- or at least a show or two performed in a rehearsal room, a foyer or a stairwell -- is hardly fit to be called a theater at all. And this time around, it's not just fashion that's pulling the train, it's the call of the future.

The change -- perhaps the most clearly defined to hit Moscow theater since a tidal wave of blackly pessimistic, often downright offensive productions surged forth in the late 1980s -- has been coming for some time. Many of the best shows over the last few seasons have made excellent use of intimate spaces, but nothing can compare with what happened in the season that has just ended.

Virtually every one of the top productions in the 1994 to '95 season was performed either on a small stage or in a small, unorthodox location adapted for performance.

An abridged list of the shows that experimented with space is telling of the variety that could be found. "K.I. from 'Crime'" at the Theater Yunogo Zritelya started in a foyer and ended in a rehearsal room. "The Metamorphosis" at the Satirikon played in a specially constructed, expanding box.

"Ivanov's Family" at the Pushkin Theater was performed in a circle around the audience which was seated on the stage itself. "Waiting for Hamlet" at the Taganka used the venue's foyer and numerous staircases. "One Night" at the National Youth Theater was staged in a kind of hatch beneath the theater's main stage.

The number of productions taking place on traditional small stages was equally impressive.

The Stanislavsky, the Mossoviet, the Yermolova, the Yermolova International Center, the Tabakov and the Taganka theaters all produced at least one, and in some cases several, quality small-stage shows.

Characteristic of the new trend was the Novy Drama Theater's year-end premiere of "A Heroic Comedy." Director Boris Lvov-Anokhin, who is known for his opulent, historically veracious, grand-scale productions, surprised everyone by going miniature with a modern-dress interpretation of a play set in the Napoleonic era.

Fittingly, the season began auspiciously with Vladimir Mashkov's sensational production of "The Deadly Number" for the Tabakov Theater.

It was the kind of magnificent spectacle that, with its stunning lighting effects and thrilling magic acts, might have seemed ideal for a large stage and a 1,000-seat hall. In fact, Mashkov told this observer during the winter that he had wanted to work on a big stage, but money restraints had held him back.

That, however, only proves that accident is often the best catalyst for the new. The reality is that the confines of the small stage were one of the key elements that raised "The Deadly Number" out of the pack of good shows and put it into the elite class of innovators. It was the very combination of spectacle and intimacy that kept the audiences sitting breathless on the edges of their seats.

The "intimization" of theater is no fluke. Aside from being a shrewd response to runaway inflation, it is a natural and aggressively creative development.

In a society that has been rocked with a decade of mind-bending and often frightening changes, it provides the direct human contact which has always been theater's calling card. You don't need opera glasses in a 100-seat hall: With the bare eye you see the wrinkles on the actors' laughing faces and their tears when they cry. That intimacy creates an almost magical attraction in a social climate which is defined by crass indifference and rampant depersonalization.

That is essentially what Alexei Borodin had in mind when recently discussing his production of "One Night," a play about the siege of Leningrad. Referring grimly to the war in Chechnya and the bloody hostage incident in Budyonnovsk, Borodin said, "I staged 'One Night' in a space below the stage. But there's another space even further down that I may use yet. I have the feeling that pretty soon we're going to be staging shows in sub-basements and playing ourselves."

But the trend is not just financial or social, it is an artistic choice.

Yury Yeryomin, the artistic director at the Pushkin Theater, one of the city's weakest in recent times, has taken some bold steps to turn around his fortunes. He closed this season with two new shows that seat the audience directly on the stage, then announced that he is taking a year's sabbatical. The purpose? To put the finishing touches on a newly constructed, 80-seat hall which is scheduled to open with fanfare sometime in 1996.

Said Yeryomin, "You won't hear anything from me for at least a year. And when we open the new stage, it will immediately have three shows in repertory: a Greek tragedy, a Russian classic and a modern play."

Not everyone has greeted these developments enthusiastically. When the Crystal Turandot awards were handed out in May, the prize for best play was presented by Mark Zakharov, the opinionated artistic director of the Lenkom Theater. Zakharov praised the winner for writing a "big play for the big stage," taking an unmistakable pot shot at all the shows being staged these days in "corridors and elevators."

But the response to Zakharov's skepticism followed immediately. In the course of the next hour, small-stage shows swept all the major production awards: best show, best director and best designer.

Indeed, with perestroika fading into history and the 21st century coming ever closer, Moscow theater is looking bolder, healthier and more innovative all the time.

This is the last in a series of four articles on contemporary Russian theater.