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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Jewish Theater Has Odd Alter Ego

The Jewish Musical Theater has just completed a remarkable $1 million transformation that has brought shows featuring "naked girls and wild beasts" to a venue once known for clever productions that pushed the envelope of Soviet political propriety.

The Jewish theater, at a prime location on Taganskaya Ploshchad, made a deal with a company that runs casinos to conduct a first-class renovation in return for taking over part of the complex and turning the theater itself into a nightclub after 10 p.m.. If all goes according to plan, one night this fall, the audience for the Yiddish-language musical "L'Haim" will file out past people on their way to an erotic show called "The Aroma of Love."

"It is the only example in the world where a casino supports art like this," said Maria Kosyura, the theater's dynamic, infectiously enthusiastic producer. "It was a dying theater. I brought it back. I did it."

Not everyone is pleased with what Kosyura has done.

"If a professional director or scenographer were there, it would be wonderful. Now it is awful," said Mikhail Filippov, Russia's best-known interior architect, who won a top prize last year from the Moscow Union of Journalists for his design of the theater.

For entirely different reasons, Rabbi Berel Lazar agreed. "There is a Jewish law forbidding playing at casinos, so having a Jewish center in a casino is not the best match," said Lazar, head of the Rabbinical Alliance of the Commonwealth of Independent States.

The composer Mikhail Gluz, who has had a longtime association with the Jewish theater, where two of his musicals will soon premiere, said the transformation was bumpy. "An awful lot of people were against it. But there was no choice."

Under an arrangement dating back to 1977, the Jewish Musical Theater had been financed and controlled by Russia's Jewish Autonomous Region, Stalin's farcical Jewish homeland on the Chinese border. In the waning years of the Soviet Union, Gluz said, the theater gained a reputation for productions that were "semi-legal" in content.

With the demise of the Soviet state and the wholesale emigration of Jews from the Jewish Autonomous Region to Israel, there was no one to pay the theater's rent.

Neither pleading letters to then-Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, nor appeals to Moscow's Jewish community brought results, Kosyura said. So, in 1995 the Vinso Grand casino opened in one part of the complex. One year later, the casino operators opened a restaurant in another section, and this year the fully rebuilt theater re-opened. Kosyura said that in about two years' time she hopes an art school for Jewish children will open in the building's courtyard.

While the casino complex as a whole is unremarkable, the 200-seat theater space is striking. A vaulted ceiling, mirrors on either end, white-washed block walls and seats surrounding the stage all combine to give the theater an organic, informal feel. Filippov has effectively created the sense that the audience is sitting in a small square in a Middle Eastern city watching a local troupe perform.

"The main idea was not to reproduce how Jerusalem looks today," said Filippov, who has never been to Israel. "It is the Jerusalem that was drawn by European painters in the early Renaissance or even the Jerusalem that is found in icons."

"It was very interesting to me to make an image of Jewish culture because I am a Jew," Filippov said of his first theater design. "For me, Jewish culture is much bigger than national culture. Just like the Bible became the base for many cultures, so too did Jewish culture become the base for those in Eastern and Western Europe."

Given Filippov's intent and the impressive result, the casino's nightly program on the theater's stage is bound to be jarring. On one recent night, as strobe lights flashed and pop music throbbed, two men and two women took the stage and embarked on a tightly choreographed dance program that lasted about five minutes. What followed was largely a succession of young women entering the stage in bikinis and boas and thongs and exiting naked.

"Men like striptease," explained the artistic director Zhenya Popova, who hopes to add more thematic shows including one with Roman gladiators and what she says will be Moscow's only stand-up comedy night.

Popova said the management is still working out the club's identity. "There was a bit of a change. Now it is half Jerusalem and half Greece, although our theme is ancient Rome," she said, noting the waitresses and bartenders in tunics and togas.

This mishmash infuriates Filippov, who objects to the theater being called "Senate" by the nightclub's management. "It is idiotic. It just sounds nice to them. They might as well call it 'Congress.'"

The theater and casino are located at 12 Taganskaya Ploshchad. The Jewish Musical Theater's first production in the renovated space is "L'Haim," set to premier Oct. 11. Tel. 912-5726. Nearest metro: Taganskaya.