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

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'Sharashka' Musty but Memorable

"Sharashka," Yury Lyubimov's new production at the Taganka Theater, is based on portions of "The First Circle," Alexander Solzhenitsyn's novel of life in a special prison camp. It opened on the writer's 80th birthday last Friday amid a blitz of media coverage interpreting and reinterpreting this towering figure of Russian culture in the 1960s and '70s.

Like the vast majority of those news stories, Lyubimov's treatment of "The First Circle" is a backward glance. I would even call it a museum piece. If it lacks the innovation, it does have the shape, the sound and the feel of what made Lyubimov and the Taganka famous 20 and 30 years ago - the bold political stance, the direct appeals to conscience, the simple, unadorned theatrical form.

Solzhenitsyn's theme of the idiocy and inhumanity of the Soviet system, in this case the prison camps, is just what Lyubimov railed against in his most popular productions. If he was never able to do it as openly as he can in "Sharashka," it was always there, a key - perhaps the main - part of his art.

A logical question arises: Why would Lyubimov now go back to a novel written in 1968 about events that took place some 20 years earlier? The most obvious answer is that he wanted to honor Solzhenitsyn. Another might be that the failure to remember the past is the first step toward committing tomorrow's errors. Still another is certainly that for Lyubimov himself, at 81, the wounds of the Soviet period remain an integral component of his life.

These are sound, honorable explanations. But good intentions are not enough to hide the fact that this show often smells of mothballs. That is especially true when we consider the explosively contemporary and energetic production of "Marat/Sade" that Lyubimov unleashed just a few weeks ago. By comparison "Sharashka" is decidedly old-fashioned.

That is not an absolute criticism. "Sharashka" features some fine acting, especially from Vitaly Shapovalov, Vsevolod Sobolev, Yury Smirnov and Lev Shteinraikh. Lyubimov himself handles several intimate scenes as Stalin, in what is to my knowledge only the second time he has acted in some 30 years. And then there is the dynamic flow of any Lyubimov production - his Taganka has never bored anyone.

Furthermore, it is good to see the designer David Borovsky back at work with Lyubimov after an extended break. His versatile set that metamorphoses instantly from the tribunes of a Soviet congress hall into the bunk beds of a prison camp is typical for this great artist. It efficiently serves the theatrical act and itself is a metaphor for the show's point that the line between the jailers and the jailed is hopelessly smeared.

Borovsky added a semicircular platform that stretches out from either corner of the stage and extends at its apex to the eighth row of seats. Consequently, a third of the spectators are literally surrounded by the action.

Lyubimov further blurs the distinction between the proverbial prisoners and their guards by having several actors perform dual or even triple parts on both sides of the line. Frankly, keeping the enormous cast straight is a problem. Rather than seeing a coherent dramatization of a novel whose characters are familiar to us, we see the basic, generalized stuff of the novel - its setting and its plot - played out by a largely faceless crowd of almost interchangeable figures.

The sharashka of the title is the play's main setting - a special, top secret camp for scientists and engineers whose talents are put to the service of the government. Most are at work creating an electronic device that supposedly will decipher specific voices from tape recordings, thus allowing the government to identify its traitors more easily. This slant of the story is presented with thick irony both in the way the authorities believe they can decree the invention of the device and in the way the prisoners play along with such nonsense.

Rubin (Valentin Ryzhy), a linguist who ended up in this sharashka more or less by chance, takes great pleasure in demonstrating the capabilities of the apparatus for the puffed-up minister Abakumov (Yury Smirnov).

For me, two characters - played by one actor - emerge with more clarity and substance than any other. Vitaly Shapovalov is excellent both as the bitter but not broken intellectual Bobynin and as the simple Spiridon Yegorov, a kind of salt-of-the-earth figure who wraps wisdom and natural morality into one. The dramas and tragedies of these men's lives, like those of the rest, are primarily revealed in the nighttime barracks talk among the inmates when they are separated from their supervisors and civilian colleagues.

Lyubimov himself sits at his director's table in the central aisle and repeatedly steps up to a niche in the stage to deliver lines uttered by Stalin or provide bits of Solzhenitsyn's narrative. Not really trying to play Stalin other than to imitate the famous Georgian accent, Lyubimov is intent mostly on creating a sense of irony: This Stalin is a gentle, thoughtful man with a fiery glint in his eye. Even he stands literally in the shadow of an "unseen" conductor (Tatyana Zhanova) who leads the entire troupe of oppressors and oppressed in stirring operatic interludes (composed by Vladimir Martynov) that once again indicate these are all players in a single game.

I was moved by "Sharashka." The combination of Lyubimov himself portraying Josef Stalin on the stage of the Taganka Theater in a show based on a novel by Solzhenitsyn is almost mind-boggling when you think about it. It's a historical moment I feel privileged to have seen.

As for the show's place in Lyubimov's artistic oeuvre, it develops nothing and adds little that is new. If you want to see Lyubimov stretching himself, check out "Marat/Sade."

"Sharashka" plays Dec. 18 at 7 p.m. at the Taganka Theater, Taganka Square. Tel. 912-1217, 915-1015. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.