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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

An Actor's Life Played Out on Stage

Jean Anouilh's "Don't Awaken Madame" at the Mossoviet Theater yearns to wax eloquent on several topics. What it does with some success is portray the way a life in the theater hangs precariously between two intangibles -- reality and imagination.

The focus is on Julien, a dedicated, somewhat surly director/actor for whom the stage has been a mother, lover, friend and enemy. Julien grew up the son of a great actress and it was with her, in her dressing room, that he experienced the first bitter taste of betrayal mixed with the sweet sensation of unrestrained affection.

More disturbing than witnessing his mother's backstage infidelities to his father was the fact that she so willingly neglected her motherly duties in favor of her profession. And then there were those transports of joy when, suddenly, for a few moments, Julien would become the center of his mother's undivided attention.

That pull between rejection and acceptance, failure and success, colors everything in Julien's life -- his attitude toward his work, his relationships in love, his demeanor with his subordinates, even his opinion of himself. When Julien was a boy, the house rule was not to "awaken madame" in the mornings. It drove him mad then, but in his adult life, he has religiously observed the same ritual with his two wives, also, of course, actresses.

Yury Yeryomin's production of "Don't Awaken Madame" works best in its treatment of Julien's life on and near the stage. As long as this airy show doesn't strain to be too smart, it remains an appreciative portrayal of a place where reality, by definition, is an imitation.

Therein lies its charm.

But when, toward the culmination, Anouilh increasingly attempts to expand the work into a multivalent observation on time, the interconnections between mothers and wives, the nature of art and the conflict between the artist and his public, he takes the play further afield than it is capable of going. It is not surprising that Yeryomin also gets bogged down from time to time as he seeks to pursue these excessively ambitious digressions.

The play and the production would both have benefitted from being shorter and more modest, although even as it is, there is plenty to admire.

The wiry, dark Georgy Taratorkin gives a fine performance as Julien. He is one of those enigmatic men who seem on the surface to be candid, businesslike and straightforward -- but who really never reveal themselves to anyone. The more we see him in contact with others, the more we realize just how much he keeps locked up inside his breast.

Quietly and without flamboyance, Taratorkin pulls off one of the hardest tasks an actor can have: He gives volume and perspective to his character's inaccessibility.

We observe Julien's relationships with his wives -- both capricious, but in different ways -- in a series of flashbacks that begin with the rehearsal of a love scene involving his current wife Aglaya (Yevgenia Kryukova). Julien is irritated by the lackadaisical approach she takes with her co-star (Dmitry Zhuravlyov), so he steps in to show them how to create sparks on the stage. Later, we see the same love scene as it once was performed by Julien with his first wife, Rosa (Olga Ostroumova), back when this pair was the leading couple in Paris theater.

As the scenes leap back and forth between the present and the past, we learn more about others in Julien's circle.

Roger, Julien's best friend and the leading actor at the theater he now runs, also emerges as one of Julien's key rivals: He had affairs with both Rosa and Julien's aged mother, Rita (Tatyana Bestayeva). Alexander Yatsko's excellent performance as Roger mixes a corrosive, irresponsible arrogance with a light, winning charisma. What makes him more than a clich? is his understanding of -- and respect for -- his profession.

Julien's right-hand man is Fessard, the director's assistant. Although he remains on the fringes of the story, he is the epitome of everything good in a servant of theater: He is enthusiastic, devoted, reliable and punctual. Alexander Lenkov pours his soul into this character, creating a delightful and fascinating eccentric. In the matter of a few words -- such as a passing reference to a past love -- Lenkov is capable of evoking all the unseen drama of Fessard's life.

Maria Rybasova's set consists of a stage and grandstand that revolve 360 degrees to provide the audience with all possible perspectives of the goings-on. A sheer white onstage curtain allows for the occasional projection of faces from the past, which hover over the action like ghosts.

When "Don't Awaken Madame" focuses on the illusory nature of theater, it is an engaging show. When it attempts to make imposing statements and draw grand parallels, as in one overly elaborate enactment of a scene from "Hamlet" that may or may not parallel Julien's own experience, it loses the simplicity and directness that are its strongest qualities.

"Don't Awaken Madame" (Ne budite madam) plays at 7 p.m. Sunday at the Mossoviet Theater, 16 Bolshaya Sadovaya Ulitsa. Tel. 299-2035. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.