Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Moralistic 1812 Redux

In this year of Moscow's 850th anniversary, many shows have celebrated the event. At the Gorky Art Theater (not to be confused with the Chekhov Art Theater), Nikolai Penkov staged Vladimir Malyagin's historical play, "The Emperor in the Kremlin," under the title of "The Moscow Fire Hissed and Burned."

Like many of this venue's shows, "The Moscow Fire" is tinged with a thinly veiled nationalistic patriotism that makes the exercise come across more as a tendentious civics lesson than as theater. Malyagin's play, a prizewinner in a competition of new texts dedicated to the 850th, portrays Napoleon's "education" in Russian ways, from his triumphant entrance into Moscow to his pathetic retreat.

Penkov himself plays Napoleon as an intelligent, inquisitive and honorable man whose biggest flaws are his childlike belief in his own greatness and his blindness to the dignity of others. In this case, those others are the simple Russians who cross his path. They include a God-fearing and defiant arsonist and his grandson, whom Napoleon puts to death, and the polite and proud director of an orphanage whom Napoleon tries to befriend. Napoleon is mortally offended to learn the Moscow nobility has fled the city rather than greet his army, but when he hears that common Muscovites are actually setting their own city afire, his outrage knows no bounds.

But neither Malyagin's play, nor Penkov's production of it explore the fascinating topic of the Russian temperament and its differences from the European. Instead, we get a sometimes sentimental, sometimes exhortative portrayal of a misguided European amid the soulful, simple Russian "savages" (to borrow a word Malyagin gives Napoleon). In short, there is nothing here that Leo Tolstoy didn't do a lot better a long time ago in "War and Peace."


An exhibit of 14 photos by the late Yelena Maiorova, in the foyer of the Tabakov Theater, gives a sketchy, but moving glimpse into the artistic vision of this multi-talented actress. Her "Death on Black Sand," taken shortly before her suicide in August, depicts a dead, but perfectly preserved dragonfly against a grainy background of black sand. Her "Self-Portrait," taken in 1995, is a penetrating image, its slightly distorted angle seemingly displaying all forehead, cheeks and piercing, beautiful eyes.