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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ginkas Works Magic on Tabakov

In the harrowing end to Kama Ginkas' brilliant, relentless production of "Room of Laughter" for the Tabakov Theater, a group of stony-faced people whack violently at an enormous, silver-walled capsule that clangs shut with a terrified man inside it as if it were a tomb.

One of those indifferent people wears a tool belt on his hip and barks orders over the din through a bullhorn - he appears to be a work-crew foreman. Maybe he, like the others, is an avenging angel of God; maybe he is a heartless neighbor of Ivan Zhukov, the poor old man who is being sealed up in this sarcophagus; maybe he is insane and this whole place is an asylum; maybe he exists only in the inflamed imagination of the failing, 75-year-old Zhukov.

One thing is certain: When he begins barking out orders for the actors to bow, we are abruptly transported from the disturbing finale of a tale about an individual utterly alone in the universe to the traditional celebratory applause and bows of the theatrical act. In the split second it takes us to realize what has happened, we pass through the catharsis that purges us in every production mounted by Kama Ginkas.

None of Ginkas' final business is in Oleg Bogayev's excellent play, which originally surfaced as "The Russian National Postal Service" at the 1997 Lyubimovka playwriting festival. Moreover, Bogayev's own ending - no less terrible, it shows the confused Zhukov believing he has been deprived of the comfort of death - has been cut from the play.

But this is where the magic of theater comes in, in the collaboration of differing but corresponding visions. Ginkas represents everything Bogayev was after, only he makes it more cosmic. The image of Zhukov peering at us through a tiny window in his "tomb" and beating his fists against it is a stunning nonverbal expression of Bogayev's very intention.

Other semi-realistic elements in the play - people knocking on heat pipes, the sounds of the city, snow falling outside - have either been abstracted or removed. What remains with a vengeance is Bogayev's story of a human at odds with the world he inhabits.

Ivan Zhukov (Oleg Tabakov) is a lonely widower who can barely afford to eat and seldom leaves his room. Quite naturally, he slips into a series of strange correspondences. He starts by writing a letter to himself from his long-lost school buddies and then he answers it.

Later he corresponds with the director of central telecommunications, the president of Russia, Queen Elizabeth II, the bugs in his apartment and a cosmonaut in orbit. Zhukov imagines he receives letters filled with honors, praise and proposals, and then graciously responds himself.

As the letters grow more fanciful, various historical and literary figures begin appearing. Bursting out of Zhukov's refrigerator and desk, Queen Elizabeth II (Marianna Shults) and Vladimir Lenin (Pavel Kondratyev) bicker about Marxist and capitalist exploitation and quarrel over who will get the old man's apartment when he dies. Other fleeting "visitors" - perhaps figments of Zhukov's fantasy or other inmates in an asylum - include the Russian civil war hero Chapayev, the legendary film actress Lyubov Orlova and even Robinson Crusoe.

Bogayev's play, receiving its world premiere under the direction of Ginkas, is a clear descendant of Nikolai Gogol's seminal short story, "The Diary of a Madman." But it is not merely derivative. It is a modern development of a strain of literature about small, alienated people that has become a fixture in the Russian tradition.

One of this production's great achievements is the performance of Oleg Tabakov. This actor has been one of Russia's most popular since his career began in 1957. But the boyish charm that originally made Tabakov famous has often been brassy self-satisfaction in the 1990s. Through his work in film, the Moscow Art Theater and his own theater, which officially came into being in 1987, Tabakov has fortified his popularity, while his artistry as an actor has declined sharply.

Ginkas vigorously stripped Tabakov of the cliches that have burdened his recent work. Almost obliterated are the overconfident grins, the boastful voice and the swaggering, self-appreciating carriage. In those rare moments when the old Tabakov shines through, the production noticeably loses its edge and careens toward a lazy sentimentality. Those moments, however, are rare.

What amazes is the fearlessness Tabakov usually brings to his performance. His old man whose life has soured and who has become a battered toy in the games of history and politics is marvelously crusty even as he teeters on the brink of parting with sanity. His finest moments are his blank, frozen stares into the abyss of his confused mind and wasted life. It is a chilling, heartbreaking moment when Zhukov crawls into a cupboard above his tiny hallway and "receives" a letter from a cosmonaut who is worried about his tattered shoes.

Sergei Barkhin's magnificent set is a character in itself. Standing at the center of an empty stage is a huge silver shell, perhaps a spaceship, perhaps a monstrous suitcase with a window. When it opens, it reveals Zhukov's minutely detailed living quarters in which every object will eventually take part in the action. Sergei Skornetsky's excellent lighting begins as realistic but becomes increasingly otherworldly as Zhukov's state deteriorates.

In "Room of Laughter," Kama Ginkas enjoys a triple triumph: He has reawakened Oleg Tabakov's slumbering prowess as an actor, has given a brilliant send-off to a new play by a promising young writer and has added another powerful production to the long list that has made him one of Russia's greatest directors. Not a bad day's work.

"Room of Laughter" (Komnata smekha), a production of the Tabakov Theater, plays Nov. 10, 16 and 24 at 7 p.m. at the Theater Yunogo Zritelya, 10 Mamonovsky Pereulok. Tel. 928-9685. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.