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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lord of the Jungle Roars On

It has been a year to remember for Armen Dzhigarkhanyan, an actor who has seen plenty in his illustrious career that began way back in 1955 at the Russian Drama Theater in Yerevan.

Over the last 18 months, Dzhigarkhanyan quit the State Cinema Institute, where he had taught acting for years; took`a "sabbatical" that is increasingly looking like a permanent escape route from the Mayakovsky Theater, his professional home for 26 years; and founded the Theater D.

If anything, those moves have only made one of Russia's busiest -- and best -- actors busier still.

Even in these days of minimal cinematic output in Russia, Dzhigarkhanyan, 60, continues to land a staggering number of film roles, usually several simultaneously. Right now, for good measure, he is also squeezing in a 26-episode television series called "The Kings of the Russian Private Eyes."

In theater, his one-man show of Samuel Beckett's "Krapp's Last Tape" at the Contemporary Play School was one of the top events of the 1995-96 season.

Dzhigarkhanyan was stunning in the uncompromising role of the crusty, uncouth old man at death's door. With his remarkably expressive face that looks as if it were cut from a mountain crag, and his rumbling, edgy voice that could stop Alexander Lebed in his tracks, he was ideal for a character who spends his time making tapes of caustic, unguarded thoughts and listening back to them.

That doesn't mean his performance pleased everyone, of course. One woman stood up in the middle of a show and, as she marched out, shouted at anyone who cared to listen, "Shame on this actor! Shame on this theater!"

Dzhigarkhanyan, a fearless performer of intense psychological precision, says those are the moments "when you find out if you really know that person you are playing."

The show is taxing, but obviously rewarding for him. "I get tired," he says in his no-nonsense, but almost gallantly polite manner. "I sweat, and I come to the show experiencing anxiety, but I feel comfortable in it."

But of all the projects he has going, Dzhigarkhanyan's "passion" is looking after the young actors of the Theater D. What made such a busy man take on the immense task of creating a new theater?

There is lurking in the answer to that question a shadowy scandal and a lesson in loyalty and responsibility. Dzhigarkhanyan touches on the subject with tact, saying only that "there were some tough minutes at the cinema institute, so I wanted to stick by my kids."

What happened was that the actor fell from favor with the administration at VGIK, the State Institute of Cinema. They reportedly called him in to ax him, and, as the story goes, he walked out without a word before they could do it.

He told his students to finish their education and he wouldn't abandon them. Theater D was the result.

You get inklings of the source for the conflict at VGIK when Dzhigarkhanyan talks about teaching. They seemed to think the actor was too busy with other things; he thought they didn't have what it takes to recognize and cultivate talent.

"There used to be a program," he says of the institute, "now it's just a conveyor belt that promotes mediocrity."

As if responding to an unvoiced question, he continues, "Of course I'm busy. Any master, if he is a real master, is busy. But what you need in creative work is the right atmosphere, a climate in which kids become actors, not just learn how and where to stand."

When Dzhigarkhanyan's class graduated in 1995, he says "nobody was there to help them" and he didn't want them to get lost in what he calls the "cruel world of the theater and cinema."

"It's a jungle, really," he adds.

Dzhigarkhanyan should know. After working 11 years in Yerevan, he was brought to the Lenin Komsomol Theater in Moscow in 1966 by Anatoly Efros, one of the great directors of the 1960s and 1970s. But just six months later, Efros was removed as one "unfit" to run a theater of that name, and the playhouse (which later became known as the Lenkom) entered a decline.

In 1969, Dzhigarkhanyan accepted Andrei Goncharov's invitation to join the Mayakovsky Theater. There he became a star, playing the leads in such popular and critically acclaimed productions as Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire" (1970), Mikhail Bulgakov's "Flight" (1978), and Edvard Radzinsky's "Conversations with Socrates" (1975) and "Theater in the Time of Nero and Seneca" (1985).

But there were also gaps of years between new roles at the Mayakovsky, in the late 1980s and early 1990s especially. You can't help but wonder if that influenced Dzhigarkhanyan's decision to found a theater. All he will say is, "I still have not quit the Mayakovsky. Doctors say that after age 60 you should make no abrupt movements."

Dzhigarkhanyan has taken an unhurried approach in forming the Theater D.

He spent most of the 1995-96 season running bureaucratic gauntlets to get the troupe a place to call home. They will eventually take over the old Litva movie theater near Moscow University, although for the next year or two while it is rebuilt, they will rent a small, 120-seat hall near the Novodevichy Monastery.

To keep pressure off his former students, Dzhigarkhanyan had his staff director Valery Sarkisov bring along several shows he had staged for his own Sarkisov Theater Group. Theater D actually debuted quietly this spring with those productions featuring veteran actors from various Moscow theaters.

Meanwhile the ex-students rehearsed portions of Alexander Pushkin's "Little Tragedies" under Sarkisov, with Dzhigarkhanyan himself taking the role of Salieri in "Mozart and Salieri." If things go as planned, the show will open in September or October.

Dzhigarkhanyan is looking like the man who could be everything: a loyal teacher, an artist at the peak of his powers, and, not least of all, someone just plain having fun. Not a bad for an actor in his fifth decade in the "jungle."

He compares a good teacher to a good director who "creates an aura, a magnetic field in which you stop knowing yourself."