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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

New Productions Failed to Break New Ground

One step up and one step back. Call it the Russian playwright jig.

In the 1990s, when new plays have been ignored by local theaters in droves, it is the dance every author has learned to do. For each sign of progress in the ongoing battle to bring contemporary plays to the public, there seems to be an equal, and most decidedly, opposite reaction.

Two summers ago I strained to find encouragement in the fact that the number of new plays in the 1995-96 season had grown to 19 from 15 in each of the previous two seasons. My quest was a bust. Not only did I have to admit the increase was trifling, but the following 1996-97 season dashed all hopes of a bull market on Russian playwriting: That year the number of new plays produced plummeted to 13.

So it is with trepidation that I announce the results of my latest bout of number crunching. Last season's paltry baker's dozen actually doubled in the 1997-98 season -- I saw productions of 26 new plays this year. Let's hear a hurrah. Albeit, without an exclamation point.

I am an honest critic, so I think it's only fair to admit where I cheated in my count.

One play on the list, "A Quartet for Laura," is publicly billed as an authorless work "translated from the French." Too many of us have heard it was actually written by Oleg Beryozkin to buy that hokum. So there's one.

Then there are five plays that are hardly new but have never been staged in Moscow. They are: Viktor Slavkin's "A Bad Apartment;" Muza Pavlova's "Don Juan's Fun and Games;" Felix Roziner's "Lilac Smoke;" Alexander Obraztsov's "Three Anecdotes About Love;" and Mikhail Vorfolomeyev's "Term of Residency Expired." I say, let these authors enjoy their moment in the sun. That makes six.

Finally there is Valery Fokin's "Another Van Gogh." This semi-wordless ensemble piece is not really a play, but then we live in an age that has proved that nothing is what it seems. And since "Van Gogh" includes some dialogues written by the promising young playwright Ivan Savelyev, I argue to count it in. Up it to seven.

That leaves 19 plays whose presence on the list is incontestable. Almost, anyway. I counted Nadezhda Ptushkina's "The Tower of Pisa" twice because it was staged at two theaters. But I think that's such a positive sign that it deserves to be reflected in the statistics.

Now, for those ready to accuse me of shamelessly padding the numbers to make a routine season look better, let me make one final confession: I always distort the figures like this. So no matter how you total it, I'm still ahead of the game.

So there it is, numbers don't lie -- the 1997-98 season was easily the best year for contemporary drama in this decade.

That's the good news. The bad news is that not one of those plays became a trendsetter.

Even in the worst of years, some new play usually galvanizes opinion either through praise or controversy to become a season's focal point. That was the case with Daniil Gink's "Bald/Brunet" in 1991-92, Alexei Burykin's "Nijinsky" in 1992-93, Yelena Gremina's "Behind the Mirror" in 1993-94, Oleg Antonov's "The Death-Defying Act" in 1994-95 and Olga Mukhina's "Tanya-Tanya" in 1995-96.

To a lesser, but still significant, extent, that role in the 1996-97 season was played by Nadezhda Ptushkina's "As a Lamb."

The 1997-98 season had no clear front-runner.

Basically, there were two reasons for that. One, most of the plays were of mediocre quality. Two, the handful of plays with the potential to make serious noise were poorly staged.

Mukhina's "YoU" at the Fomenko Studio is a case in point. This brilliant work demonstrates that the twenty-something author of the acclaimed "Tanya-Tanya" is still growing by leaps and bounds.

Wider in scope and deeper in insight than its predecessor, "YoU" is a summing-up of the Moscow experience at the end of the 20th century. Its sharply contradictory images of the burgeoning, revitalized Russian capital darkened by crippling apathy make for one of the most powerful plays I have read in this decade. However, Yevgeny Kamenkovich's trendy, superficial production at the Fomenko Studio does it no justice at all.

Mukhina, with Ptushkina, was one of four playwrights to be produced twice this season. Her other outing was the premiere of "The Love of Karlovna," a play originally written in the early 1990s. This probing piece, something of an internal monologue spread out among various characters, received an uneventful staging at the Contemporary Play School.

Others produced in pairs were Hanna Slutski and Pyotr Gladilin. Slutski's "The Emigrant's Position" was staged at the Anton Chekhov Theater while "The Exterminator," a play she co-wrote with Sergei Bodrov, opened at the Chelovek Theater-Studio. Gladilin's "Thick-Soled Shoes" was produced through the Art-Partner XXI agency and his "Another Person" was mounted at the Contemporary Play School.

All of these plays -- including Ptushkina's "The Tower of Pisa" but excluding "The Love of Karlovna" -- were bittersweet or tragifarcical explorations of the failures of love. They were routine works that rose above the crowd only when handled exceptionally by the director, as in Lyudmila Roshkovan's version of "The Exterminator" or Boris Milgram's interpretation of "The Tower of Pisa" at the Stanislavsky Theater.

Two venues were especially attentive to contemporary writers. The Contemporary Play School ("Karlovna," "Another Person" and Viktor Shamirov's "Nothing in Particular") and the Debut Center (Yelena Isayeva's "Apricot Heaven," Alexander Naidyonov's "Crow's Feet" and Yekaterina Narshi's "The Two Youngest") put on three new plays each. The Mossoviet Theater, the Yermolova Theater Center and the Satire Theater each staged two.

Before the June opener, the Satire Theater's production of Ivan Savelyev's "Journeys on the Edge" seemed it might be an event in the making. But this 1996 Antibooker prize winner, about an 8-year-old orphan conning adults into letting her live with them, emerged as an underachiever.

Other plays providing less than their authors' reputations would seem to promise were "A Moscow Nest" by Leonid Zorin at the Mossoviet Theater and "A Dream for the End of the World" by Yelena Gremina at the Yermolova Theater Center.

In this mixed atmosphere of higher quantities but lower quality among new plays and their productions, one related development cannot go unnoticed.

This season I saw just two new productions each of Anton Chekhov and Nikolai Gogol, one of Fyodor Dostoevsky and four of Alexander Ostrovsky. These numbers mark a sharp decline over past years, when this quartet mercilessly dominated Moscow's stages.

Is this the first sign that the long-standing hegemony of the classics may be collapsing? There were plenty of old plays produced this season, but many were idiosyncratic and not likely to be repeated.

Productions of such 18th-century writers as Denis Fonvizin, Alexander Sumarokov and Ivan Krylov were surely aberrations despite the fun they provided.

A similar excellent show that could not possibly be duplicated was "Victory Over the Sun," Alexander Ponamaryov's delightful revival at the National Youth Theater of Alexei Kruchyonykh's 1913 futurist fantasy.

Rumors are rife about several new plays that may open in the fall. Some in rehearsal already are Mikhail Ugarov's "The Green Cheeks of April" and Alexander Stroganov's "Ornithology" at the Chekhov Art Theater, Oleg Bogayev's "The Russian National Postal Service" at the Tabakov Theater and a new play by Alexander Galin at the Sovremennik.

It's too early to be making predictions, but there is reason to hope that Russia's long-suffering playwrights might be dancing to a different, more pleasant tune come this time next year.