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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

One Fun Wedding, One Hopeless Spectacle

Bright lights! Kicking heels! Soaring voices! Clothes to kill! Obviously the enigmatic Russian soul is ready for a rest. This season it is show time in Moscow.

It started with a splash in September when Boris Milgram unveiled a sweeping production of "As a Lamb." Immediately afterward came Vladimir Mashkov's high-profile, high-cost rendition of "The Threepenny Opera." Since then there have been more spectacles, entertainments and song-and-dance shows than this town might have seen since the 1920s.

Now, as the theatrical year turns down the final stretch, two more shows have slipped into place as if they were bookends made especially to lend the season symmetry.

At the Lenkom Theater, Mark Zakharov has plugged his trademark sonic booms, obligatory bursts of fire and ever-scurrying actors into Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novella, "The Gambler," under the title of "Barbarian and Heretic." At, of all places, the classy affiliate of the venerable Maly Theater, directors Vitaly Solomin and Alexander Chetvyorkin have turned out a visually stunning, if overly long, musical based on Alexander Sukhovo-Kobylin's 19th-century black comedy, "Krechinsky's Wedding."

To ape the Roman emperors, who also watched a lot of spectacles and were the most peevish critics of their day, I give a plunging thumbs down to "Barbarian" and a qualified, although admiring, thumbs up to "Krechinsky's Wedding."

I wonder if I have ever seen anything as surprising as a Maly Theater actress trotting nimbly to the edge of the stage in her fluffy white undergarments, and promptly dropping down into a split. I might have been less amazed by a striptease in the Vatican, or a Mark Zakharov show that doesn't challenge the eardrums.

But the real surprise of "Krechinsky's Wedding" is its easy mix of flamboyance and depth, tightly bound by quality. Coming at one of the most conservative venues in town, that is no mean trick.

There are whispers that the Maly's top brass -- more comfortable with revivals of costume classics -- remains skeptical. One musical at the Maly two years ago was shut down before it opened. "Krechinsky's Wedding" has been in preparation for two years, and a surprise open dress rehearsal last week was said to be arranged in part to muster public support.

If so, I'm happy to say this is what real theater is about: taking chances and doing it with vision and talent.

The story, presented in a libretto by Kim Ryzhov with music by Alexander Kolker, tells of a card sharp, Krechinsky (Solomin), out to cover his debts by marrying the romantic innocent, Lidochka (Lyudmila Titova). She is wholeheartedly encouraged by her squeaky, frivolous Aunt Atuyeva (Tatyana Pankova), and opposed by her cautious and wealthy father, Muromsky (Alexander Potapov), until he is overwhelmed by his daughter's tears and Krechinsky's made-to-order charm.

But Krechinsky's debts come due earlier than expected and, with the wedding still in the balance, he enlists his grimy sidekick Rasplyuyev (Vasily Bochkaryov) in a secret scheme to cheat a money lender of 40,000 rubles. The idea is to offer Lidochka's diamond pin as collateral, but replace it at the last minute with an identical glass copy. Lidochka knows nothing about it although, when she finds out, she sets aside her horror to save her intended from prison. Thus the appellation as a comedy.

It is heartening to see the excellent Maly Theater actors getting to try something new, moreover since they respond with such sparkle and energy. Pankova, deliciously vivacious at 80, savors her eccentric moments with the relish of a young, avant-gardist. Titova, if demonstrating a somewhat thin singing voice, is agile and engagingly pert.

The members of the cast work as parts in a well-oiled machine, not the least of which is a group of eight masked dancers, all students of the Maly's Shchepkin Institute. They are actually the backbone of the dynamic show, their snappy precision holding the posture of Lyubov Parfenyuk's intriguing choreography.

No words can do justice to Yury Kharikov's wildly frilly costumes and his stunning, dreamlike sets -- topped, in my book, by the cavernous, dripping ice house of Krechinsky's apartment in Act Two.

The show's weakest aspects are the songs -- pleasantly rhythmic at best, and garish at worst -- and the drawn-out third act. I suspect the directors are facing some hard decisions about what to cut. I encourage them to be pitiless. This potentially top-notch show, whose next public performance is not yet certain, is well worth saving.

"Barbarian and Heretic" is beyond saving. Artistically, there is no point. Commercially, the Lenkom label -- rather like the golden arches at McDonald's -- will attract crowds no matter what is served.

Alexei (Alexander Abdulov) is an impoverished tutor accompanying the children of General Zagoryansky (Oleg Yankovsky) on a gaming trip to the fictional European city of Roulettenburg. There a constellation of foreigners lose their heads and dignity over gambling and love.

It is a typically Dostoyevskian melange of distorted desires, tortured consciences and complex interrelations. Zagoryansky's hopes of marrying the beautiful Blanche (Maria Mironova) hinge on his receiving an inheritance from his dying Aunt Antonida in Russia.

But when she shows up in person -- and loses her fortune at the tables -- his plans are crushed. Alexei is involved in a twisted love duet with Zagoryansky's stepdaughter (Alexandra Zakharova), but ends up running off to Paris with Blanche when she dumps the financially ruined Zagoryansky.

Zakharov's cryptic dramatization of these events -- brandishing rhetorical utterances about "Russians and gambling" or "Russians abroad" like banners -- is impenetrable. It is worsened by much of the text being spoken with machine-gun speed, or in thickly accented French or English. I had to go back to the book to learn what I had seen.

All of this is played out amid booming music, flashing strobe lights, a gyrating corps de ballet and Oleg Sheintsis' dark, spinning set that features off to the side a whirring, spinning, ticking, tocking contraption whose sole purpose I could discern was to distract attention from the mediocrity around it.

Everything has exceptions, and here they are: Inna Churikova, a hurricane of power, comedy and humanity as the imperious old Antonida, and Leonid Bronevoi, infused with warmth and irony as Antonida's butler. But even this fine pair cannot salvage the wreck of "Barbarian and Heretic," symbolized by the finale of Alexei begging God's mercy with a contorted face suggesting he has stomach cramps.

"Barbarian and Heretic" (Varvar i eretik) plays at 7 p.m. May 17 at the Lenkom Theater, 6 Ulitsa Malaya Dmitrovka. Tel. 299-0708. Running time: 2 hours, 50 mins. "Krechinsky's Wedding" (Svadba Krechinskogo) might play again in June at the Maly Theater affiliate, 69 Bolshaya Ordynka. Tel. 237-3181/4472. Running time: 3 hours, 55 mins.