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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bleak, Harsh, Hilarious 'Anecdotes'

In "Anecdotes" at the Tabakov Theater, Valery Fokin has staged a grim, even cruel show that has them rolling in the aisles. It's that quintessential Russian mix of "laughter through tears" with a farcical, morbid twist.

Fokin went back to a one-act play he originally staged in 1973 at the Sovremennik Theater, Alexander Vampilov's "Twenty Minutes With an Angel," prefacing it with a dramatization of the Dostoevsky story "Bobok." Astonishingly, the two works written almost 100 years apart fit like pieces of a puzzle.

"Bobok," written in 1873, is a yarn about a tipsy, two-bit writer who hears the voices of the dead in a cemetery. "Angel," written in 1962, is a despairing burlesque of moral turpitude in which two drunks and some bystanders persecute a stranger because they think his good intentions are a screen for subterfuge. The people in both pieces are sprouts on the same family tree.

That connection is emphasized in Woldemar Zawodzinski's design. His three-tiered, see-through crypt of act one -- filled with bodies "living" and dead -- becomes a hollow basement beneath the floor on which the characters of the second act walk. Yefim Udler's bright, narrow spots trained on faces and hands slice through the graveyard gloom of "Bobok," while his open, all-illuminating lighting of "Angel" captures the atmosphere of a cheap, provincial hotel.

As the drooling, red-faced writer in "Bobok," Vladimir Mashkov isn't just a drunk, he's a pickled souse of grand comic proportions.

Slurring off wicked condemnations of his times and contemporaries, for a haughty moment he also poses as a statue of Alexander Pushkin. But the dead cow him into silence when they raise their voices.

Fokin's handling of the cavalcade of cadavers is masterful. They begin their chatter frozen motionlessly, eyes closed, muttering about cards and the price of graves before going into a tizzy at the memory of sexual longing. When one decomposing figure murmurs that he'd like to "live a bit more," the whole lot bursts into malicious guffaws.

All are set aflutter when the former crook Klinevich (Sergei Bezrukov) almost crawls out of his coffin. They get even more excited -- their hands trembling in unison, their twists and turns synchronically choreographed -- when he suggests they try "living out their last few months without shame" before totally decomposing.

But there the flabbergasted writer loses contact with the other world.

Dostoevsky's miniature wax museum of not-quite disembodied personalities -- defined by their puffed-up pride and petty concerns, but also marked by a sympathetic humanity -- are reincarnated in Vampilov's hotel dwellers.

Ugarov (Mashkov) and his sidekick Anchugin (Oleg Tabakov) are on the third day of a drinking binge and broke. When Anchugin yells out the window that he needs money, a stranger appears and offers the then-hefty sum of 100 rubles. But such unexplained generosity is more suspect than welcome, so the drunks tie the stranger up until they can figure him out.

With his nerdy haircut, stubby eyebrows, rosy cheeks and fidgety mannerisms, Yevgeny Mironov is an earthly angel of a stranger. Meek, polite and vaguely brushed with the breath of sadness, he only breaks down when his tormentors threaten to put him in an asylum: He wanted to give away the money as penance for neglecting the mother he just buried.

Mashkov and Tabakov ham it up with the shamelessness one suspects the dead were after in "Bobok," although in time their brassy, staggering excess acquires a homespun appeal. Tabakov, reviving the role he played for Fokin 23 years ago, has lost the disarming candor of his youth. But even as he wavers between self-assuredness and self-importance, he has a glib comic touch.

"Bobok" is the prize of this combination, but both "anecdotal" halves are done with neat, brisk and killing humor.

"Anecdotes" (Anekdoty) plays May 31 at 7 p.m. at the Tabakov Theater, 1a Ulitsa Chaplygina. Tel. 928-9685. Running time: 2 hours, 5 mins.

Critic's Notebook: Last week's two shows of "Cynics," the new production from the Alla Sigalova Independent Troupe, was the first time we have seen Russia's premier modern dance company at work in three years. And due to one of the dancer's prior engagements, they will be the last performances until next season.

As always with a Sigalova show, the undercurrent of a literary plot is strong, in this case, snippets of Anatoly Mariengof's novel "Cynics" about Russian bohemians in the 1920s. And, as usual, the choreographer/dancer boiled it down to a few sparklingly clear and fresh episodes.

The scenes of an intertwining love affair between one woman (Sigalova) and three men (led by the scintillating Sergei Vikharev, a soloist of the Mariinsky Ballet) are played out against the backdrop of Dziga Vertov's classic silent film "Man With a Movie Camera."

Sigalova's choreography, brisk, bold and angular, remarkably captures the "constructivist" feel of the Russian 1920s and shows that she has overcome the strains of repetitiveness which occasionally surfaced in her last show, called "La Divina."