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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Contemporary 'Roses' Offer Ostrovsky in Perfect Bloom

Finally someone has done it -- staged a 19th-century melodrama by Alexander Ostrovsky as if it were a contemporary play. I don't mean just modern clothes and trappings, although that is rare enough. I mean getting down inside of Ostrovsky's quintessential Muscovite language and characters and coming back up with a performance about what people are experiencing at the end of the 20th century.

The man who did it is Viktor Shamirov, who just last month won a "Moscow Debut" award for his first professional production: an unusual staging of "Don Juan" at the Russian Army Theater. In that show, Shamirov tackled one of the largest stages in the world; in his intimate production of Ostrovsky's "Life Is No Bed of Roses" at the Chelovek Theater-Studio, he took on what must be one of the smallest.

Furthermore, indicating he is not inclined to suffer from claustrophobia, Shamirov joined with designer Vadim Tallerov to cut the puny stage at the Chelovek in half again. For most of the performance, the actors work right under the noses of the spectators in a tiny oblong space made even smaller by a low, slanting patchwork ceiling of rugs and blankets.

The shortcomings in "Don Juan" -- primarily Shamirov's inability to coax adequate performances from some of his lead actors -- have largely been turned around in "Life Is No Bed of Roses." Or at least that happened to a sufficient extent to make this production a thoroughly engaging look at the games of power and humiliation which are played between people with wealth and those without it.

Darya Fedoseyevna (Olga Dzisko) is an impoverished widow living in a cramped "Soviet" apartment with her 20-year-old daughter Agnia (Irina Grinyova). The young woman, full of longing for a better life, is attracted to Ippolit (Alexander Sinyukov), a young neighbor who is crazy for her. But since he has been working without pay for his rich Uncle Yermil (Valery Barinov) for nearly ten years, Ippolit can offer Agnia nothing more than his affection. When Yermil comes courting and throwing around expensive gifts, Agnia finds herself on the proverbial horns of a dilemma -- Should she marry for love or money?

The first seconds immediately tip off Shamirov's efforts to find in this story a contemporary pitch. Agnia and her mother sit silently at the kitchen table drinking tea and munching crackers and slices of apple. Nothing happens and nothing is supposed to. This is no theatrical impression of how people lived 100 years ago, it is a truthful, modern portrayal of people sitting together at their kitchen table lost in unguarded reverie.

Grinyova exudes the perfect combination of youthful irony, impatience and aimlessness. She is an actress of great subtlety, and it is enough to watch her chew a fingernail or roll her eyes to sense exactly what is going on inside her head. Her heroine, cloudily trapped between the desire for an idle life and the impulses of frustrated sexuality, is at a crossroads which she herself only vaguely recognizes. Grinyova lays out Agnia's inner battle with a surgeon's precision.

In time, Agnia's attentions -- and the focus of the production -- are swallowed up by Yermil's ravenous appetite for veneration. Barinov's considerable achievement as the lecherous, arrogant middle-aged man is measured in the depth of the antipathy we feel toward him as he bullies everyone around, as well as in the short-lived pang of sympathy we unexpectedly experience when his well-laid plans collapse. It is not so much that we see in him a projection of the so-called "New Russians," but more that we come to perceive the destructive weight of so much self-satisfaction.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the real winner in the battle of wits is Agnia's unassuming mother. Always ready to bow and scrape before her "great" visitor, she stops short of what would be tantamount to prostituting her daughter and refuses Yermil's increasingly insolent demands. Dzisko is in her element in these final scenes, pulling a deep sense of strength and values out of the wooly weakness that usually characterizes her Darya.

As the hesitating Ippolit who is finally put up to outfoxing his uncle by Agnia, Sinyukov cuts an excessively pale figure. But since Agnia's infatuation is more with her own confused desire for excitement and/or luxury than with any specific person, this is not a major flaw. Agrippina Steklova turns in several masterful moments of comic abandon as Feona, Yermil's housekeeper who stops to share in some wacky girl talk with Agnia.

Shamirov in "Life Is No Bed of Roses" was not out to "modernize" Ostrovsky or to hold contemporary Russian life up to a 19th-century mirror. He simply delivered a fine, insightful play with modern intonations, creating a compelling encounter with some of Moscow's eternal people and situations.

"Life Is No Bed of Roses" (Ne vsyo kotu maslenitsa) plays Sunday and then Jan. 19, 20 and 27 all at 7 p.m. at the Chelovek Theater-Studio, 23A Skatertny Pereulok. Tel. 291-1656/2668. Running time: 2 hours, 40 mins.