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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Playhouse of the World

More than two months of great theater from around the globe is on its way to Moscow for the Chekhov Festival.

Shakespeare said, "All the world's a stage," but if he were around today, he might have phrased it a little differently: Nowadays, the stage is definitely Moscow.

In any case, that will be true from March 26 to June 9, when 130 performances of 52 productions from 28 cities in 21 countries will roar through town, putting on an extraordinary theatrical display.

And for the first time in the 1990s, a major company from the United States, the American Repertory Theater, known as ART, from Boston, will perform here, as will an acclaimed U.S. touring show, an all-black production of Sophocles, called "The Gospel at Colonus," by the company Mabou Mines.

The occasion is the Third International Chekhov Theater Festival, which, since its inception in 1992, has grown into one of the world's premier theatrical showcases. This year, the event acquires added importance because it coincides with and is dedicated to the 100th anniversary of Konstantin Stanislavsky and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko's founding of the Moscow Art Theater, now arguably the world's most famous playhouse.

"Performing in Moscow was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life," says Sam Beazley, a British actor who played here last spring with the Almeida Theater and will return in May with Declan Donnellan's production of "Much Ado About Nothing" for the Cheek by Jowl company.

"I'm an old man now," Beazley says, "but when I was a young student, we were all brought up on Stanislavsky."

Declan Donnellan's Cheek by Jowl -- named one of the 10 great theater companies in the world last year by Time magazine -- will be making its second appearance at the Chekhov Festival and its fourth appearance in Moscow overall.

Several alumni of previous festivals will make return visits this year. They include Robert Sturua from Georgia, Petr Lebl from Prague, Anatoly Ivanov from Voronezh, Temur Chkheidze from St. Petersburg, Theodoros Terzopoulos from Athens and the young Estonian director Elmo Nuganen, who will bring a production that he mounted recently in St. Petersburg.

The array of troupes and artists making their first trip to Moscow also cannot help but catch the eye. The addition of such countries as Japan, Brazil, Hungary, Poland and Belgium will make the current festival the most diverse ever.

But it is the participation of the United States that adds a certain historical symmetry.

"We very much wanted an American presence this year," says Ella Levina, the festival's press secretary. "With the festival being timed to honor the Moscow Art Theater's 100th birthday, and the New York tour of the Art Theater in the 1920s being one of the most legendary chapters in its history, it was a perfect combination."

Attempts to bring theaters from the United States to previous Chekhov Festivals ended in failure in part because of a lack of official interest on the American side. While the government of every other participating country offers financial support to their theaters, the United States has always declined -- and still does -- to provide any funding.

"No substantial ongoing [U.S.] federal program exists to help fund cultural exchanges," says Robert Orchard, the managing director of the ART.

This year those problems were overcome by an active fund-raising campaign put on by the American Repertory Theater and by help from the International Confederation of Theater Unions, the festival organizers.

The ART will not only have the honor of opening the festival, but it will also be the only company presenting three different shows.

Robert Brustein's intense production of Luigi Pirandello's "Six Characters in Search of an Author" will kick off the festivities Thursday with the first of four performances on consecutive nights at the Chekhov Art Theater. Next up will be Joseph Chaikin's production of "When the World Was Green," a new play written by Chaikin with Sam Shepard, which shows March 28 to 31. It will be followed by Andrei Serban's delightful production of Carlo Gozzi's fairy tale, "The King Stag," playing April 2 to 5.

"Six Characters" and "The King Stag" entered the repertory at the ART in the mid-1980s and have since been performed throughout Asia, Europe and the United States. "When the World Was Green" premiered at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics before moving on to New York and then taking up residence at the ART.

"It is not typical Shepard," says Brustein, the ART's artistic director. "It has two characters and is very short -- about an hour and 10 minutes. I think what you'll find is his extraordinary capacity to evoke hallucinated time."

Shepard is perhaps best known to the broad public as one of the top movie stars of the 1980s. But his numerous experimental plays written in New York in the 1960s and such full-length works as "Buried Child," "True West" and "Fool for Love," written in the '70s and '80s, had by that time already made him one of the most important U.S. playwrights of his generation.

Chaikin is a long-time collaborator of Shepard, both as a co-author and as a director.

Brustein, who is also the influential theater critic for the New Republic, calls "When the World Was Green" "a battle of souls." "I think Chekhov must have been on Shepard's mind when he wrote it," he says.

The other troupe from the United States, Lee Breuer's Mabou Mines, will bring to town two shows: "The Gospel at Colonus," a rousing, gospel-drenched version of Greek tragedy set in a black Pentecostal church, which can be seen May 6 to 10 at the Gorky Art Theater, and Breuer's own performance piece titled "Hajj," showing May 8 to 10 at the Chekhov Art Theater New Stage.

Still another link to the New World will be Robert Wilson's production of "Persephone," although in this case the staging is mounted by the Change Performing Art company of Milan, Italy, from May 19 to 23. Wilson, an American whose reputation was originally made in Europe, is a master at creating shows filled with haunting, dreamlike visual and aural images.

Important as it is, however, the U.S. connection will hardly be the only source of highlights. Even without some of the world-class names that have graced past festivals, such as Peter Stein, Peter Brook and Eimuntas Nekrosius, the current crop of participants is a good start to a listing of who's who in world theater.

The French director Olivier Py will bring two shows that were featured at last summer's Avignon Festival, an exploration of Berlin cabarets and low-life titled "Miss Knife" on April 4 and 5, and a striking piece called "The Face of Orpheus." In an interview with Le Monde last summer, Py said, "Our sole ambition in 'Orpheus' was to prove that the essence of poetry is very simple, humble and beautiful."

Robert Sturua, the great Georgian director whose Rustaveli Theater is no stranger to Moscow, will also bring two shows, a version of Grigol Robakidze's "Lamara," which premiered in Tbilisi last season and plays April 16, and a brand new interpretation of Carlo Gozzi's "The Snake Woman," which just opened in January and plays in Moscow on April 18 and 19.

"Moscow is a theatrical town," says Sturua, when asked why his theater is so popular here. "The public here understands theater."

For the first time ever, we will have the opportunity to see one of the famous Finnish productions of Moscow-based director Kama Ginkas. His "Macbeth," created last year for the Helsinki Drama Theater as a tale set in prehistoric times, will play at the Army Theater on May 16 and 17.

Other legendary figures making their first trips to Moscow include Japan's Suzuki Tadashi and France's Ariane Mnouchkine. The world-renowned Suzuki Troupe of Toga will offer "Dionysius" from May 27 to 29, and Mnouchkine's celebrated Theatre du Soleil will present "And Suddenly the Nights Became Sleepless" from June 4 to 8.

"Sleepless nights" may become the unofficial motto of this festival. With so many shows to see, many of us may find we'll be lucky to catch our breath each day and make it to the next theater on time.

The Third International Chekhov Theater Festival opens Thursday at the Chekhov Art Theater. Tickets for all shows are available at the International Confederation of Theater Unions, 21/1 Leontyevsky Pereulok. Tel. 929-7070, fax 929-7777. For the schedule of upcoming shows, see the Going Out and Further Out listings on pages III and IV.