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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Best of Russian Theater Hits Town




The Golden Mask festival, honoring the Russian Theater Union's picks for the best in Russian drama, ballet, musical theater and puppetry for 1997, may be winding down, but there is still plenty to see in the loaded schedule that runs through Sunday and concludes with the awards ceremony Monday at the Chekhov Art Theater.


Aside from the nominated Moscow shows -- arguably led by the Opera's acclaimed intimate production of "Eugene Onegin" -- the visiting theaters you still can catch are two from St. Petersburg, the Otkryty Theater and the Theater Na Liteinoi, the Yevgeny Panfilov Ballet from Perm, the Krasny Fakel Theater from Novosibirsk, the Saratov Theater of Opera and Ballet and the Sam-Art Theater from Samara. It is a rare opportunity to take a trip through Russian theater without ever going beyond the Garden Ring.


Meanwhile, I want to glance back at two shows that have come and gone.


The expectations were high for the Omsk Drama Theater's production of Leo Tolstoy's "The Living Corpse." Too high, in fact.


Omsk dominated last year in the drama category, taking three of the five awards with its dramatization of Kobo Abe's novel, "The Woman in the Dunes." That controversial near-sweep -- many were hostile or even hysterical in their reactions -- guaranteed that all eyes would be on Omsk again this year.


As it happened, Vladimir Petrov's production of "The Living Corpse," nominated for four awards, was not up to the scrutiny. I'll say this: the show was obviously put together with sincerity and feeling, but good intentions are not enough to make good theater. Moreover, the flaws snowballed as the three-act, 3 1/2-hour show progressed.


Most irritating was Tolstoy's crude, outdated play. The tragic story about Fedya Protasov, a sincere, good-hearted wastrel who fakes suicide to free his suffering wife, but ends up bringing the law down on her for bigamy, just does not resonate at the end of the 20th century. There are, in this play, too many long-vanished social references, and too few of the timeless details that might allow such a story to maintain its relevance.


Petrov, up for best director, and Valery Skorokosov, up for best actor in the role of Protasov, clearly sought to recalibrate Tolstoy's tortured morality tale as a plea for tolerance, but I was not convinced.


An effort to add color and movement in the first act by introducing five full-length Gypsy song-and-dance numbers backfired despite the skill with which they were performed. For the duration of this over-extended scene we were too often reminded that the play was incapable of holding our interest.


The Minusinsk Drama Theater is contending for best show and best director with Alexei Pesegov's production of Chekhov's "The Seagull." In its single performance Sunday, the troupe from central Siberia demonstrated the pitfalls that invariably are part and parcel of tackling one of Chekhov's complex dramas.


Chekhov's major plays -- and increasingly even his minor ones -- are staged so frequently and have become so familiar that directors often resort to reshuffling shades, tones and nuances to distinguish their productions from others. That is just what Pesegov was up to. This was the now-notorious, slow, pause-laden, reflective Chekhov, carefully punctuated with occasional outbursts of gaiety, frustration or despair.


The young Nina Zarechnaya (Olga Taishikhina) was bubbly and excitable until her dreams of love and a life in art are crushed; the famous, elder writer Trigorin (Andrei Sharypov), who eventually seduces and abandons her, was more sympathetically flawed than jaded; Arkadina (Galina Salomatova), Trigorin's lover, the young Treplev's mother and a famous provincial actress, was a mix of tranquility and sudden nervous fits. Yet none of them created characters with enough individuality to either break out of the common paradigms or enrich those we already know.


With designer Svetlana Lamanova, Pesegov's central "innovation" was to focus the set on the stage where Treplev's "decadent" play-within-a-play is performed in the first act. As if a vague reference to Andy Warhol's suggestion that everyone in our age will achieve 15 minutes of fame, each of the characters at one time or another mounted that platform as if it were a public tribune for private confessions. But in this "Seagull," the revelations seldom seemed of much consequence.


Thursday's Golden Mask schedule: Theater Na Liteinoi's "A Moon for the Misbegotten" at the Mossoviet Theater at noon; Yevgeny Panfilov Ballet's "Avvakum -- a Dance Mystery" at the Helikon Opera at 3 p.m.; Krasny Fakel Theater's "Zoika's Apartment" at the National Youth Theater at 7 p.m. For shows through Sunday see Friday's MT Out.