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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

New Shows Delight Audiences, Disgust Critics




It is time for a reality check. Critics and audiences sometimes see things differently.


I was reminded of that when taking in a recent performance of Pyotr Gladilin's comedy, "Thick-Soled Shoes." This so-called "commercial production," put on by Anatoly Voropayev's Art-Partner XXI agency, opened in the spring. For various reasons, I got to it only last week.


As I sat amid an enthusiastic overflow crowd gushing with laughter and applause at nearly every move on stage, I realized that what I had come to see did not coincide with the demands and expectations of those around me. What I found silly, they found hilarious.


Meanwhile, I recalled another show that I saw in the fall but ignored for similar reasons. "A Quartet for Laura," produced by Oleg Beryozkin's Art-Club XXI, used all the same tricks as "Thick-Soled Shoes" and many of the other current successful commercial endeavors.


Here is the basic formula: The star-packed cast is small. The play is short and its titillating plot involves the complications of sex. Character development goes no deeper than the powers of pop psychology will allow. The conflicts seldom challenge us, but rather reinforce our desires to believe that our lives are good and right, even when they are troubled.


"A Quartet for Laura" is billed as a play translated from the French, although no author is indicated. According to unconfirmed rumors, it was actually written by Beryozkin.


He is a good producer. He fills halls not only for his agency, but for Vladimir Spivakov's concerts, as well. One show he produced, Nadezhda Ptushkina's "As a Lamb," was one of the most interesting of the 1996-97 season.


"Quartet" observes Laura, played by the popular Lyubov Polishchuk, in relationships with four men. Each must deal with the news that she has taken a lover. One ignores the problem, another manipulates Laura's emotions, the third is a control freak who brandishes a pistol and the fourth is a grotesque weirdo who rips off one of Laura's exquisite dresses (designed by Maria Efros) and whips her with his belt.


But this is a comedy and, after the thrashing, Laura calls her best friend Susie on the phone and effervesces, "He beat me and tore up my dress!" What better proof of love? This is the guy who wins our heroine's heart.


Director Andrei Zhitinkin pushed the buttons that keep his audience happy. There are a lot of slinky, sexy dances (choreographed by Marina Nikitina) that imply that this all may be in someone's imagination, while the music is used as a cattle prod. On occasion it even comes with canned applause to remind the spectators how to respond. The finale, with all five actors dancing happily, is accompanied by a mercifully anonymous -- though dauntingly thunderous -- recording of that one-part catchy and two-parts sappy Beatles' song, "All Together Now."


I thought that "Quartet" was a vulgar play directed and performed slickly. Nine months after its premiere, it continues to draw full houses.


"Thick-Soled Shoes" is something of a sad comedy about a marriage on the rocks. Plokhov (Alexander Feklistov) falls in love with a woman half his age and plans to leave his wife (Tatyana Vasilyeva). On the advice of a psychologist, she plants an incriminating letter in her husband's coat pocket, and Plokhov is jailed. As a result only his wife can get to him, thus pushing the lover out of the picture.


Throughout the performance, the husband-wife relations are refereed by a character designated as the Galoshes Rack (Valery Garkalin). He appears as the bizarre psychologist, reappears as the sadistic prison guard and later transforms into a brusque maid who waits on the pair as they attempt to make a new life in the hubbie's prison cell. Although he originally materializes as if a specter from behind a galoshes rack upon which Plokhov sleeps, we only later learn that he truly is a piece of furniture -- trying to maintain peace in his home.


As is de rigueur for plays of this sort, we are led to suspect that we have witnessed some sort of dream state.


The actors, all popular and accomplished, ardently rest on their laurels. Garkalin, a fine eccentric actor, dishes up his customary shtick of body-language and facial expressions. Feklistov is his usual phlegmatic, intellectual self, and Vasilyeva pours on her famous baby-talk, poor-poor-me glances and, as is to be expected, her trademark cackle.


Director Roman Kozak on two occasions has Vasilyeva pause, step toward the audience and utter a dry cackle.


Both times it brings down the house.


Gladilin's play and Kozak's handling of it do not explore infidelity, love and sex -- they serve them on a platter.


A case in point is the prison guard's lecture that sex should be a circus. Shortly thereafter we are treated to a lame game of metaphorical copulation in which the husband-as-red-clown repeatedly and vainly tries to throw a ball dangling at his crotch into a tiny net that his wife-as-white-clown holds at waist level. This had the audience, of which I was a member, beside itself with joy.


Even the sad ending is reassuring: When Plokhov leaves his wife, we can't help but feel that he made the right decision.


I probably shouldn't have been so surprised by the public's enthusiasm for this show. I have received several hints of late that a new strain of pop theater has arisen that has little or nothing to do with the traditional, more serious strain of Russian theater.


The two varieties appeal to different audiences, and the makers of the commercial shows know that well. If critics at the premieres of shows at traditional repertory theaters are accepted as a necessary evil, as a distasteful means to achieve publicity, most of the commercial agencies have taken note of a peculiarity of the Russian market: Critics have little power, and mass audiences neither read nor heed them.


The result is that this season, for the first time in my experience, I had trouble getting into some of the shows. When I made arrangements to see a production that I will not identify, the director called me and asked me not to come. "There's nothing in it for you," he said. My attempts to see the directing debut of popular actress Tatyana Dogileva in the Moscow Enterprises production of "Moonlight, Honeymoon" ended in failure; I was repeatedly told that no seats were available for the press.


For the record, I was invited to "A Quartet for Laura," and the director of "Thick-Soled Shoes" graciously responded to my request to attend.


But the trend is obvious. The new popsters have discovered a lucrative niche outside the old mainstream, and they are playing by their own rules.


I want to make one thing clear: I heartily embrace this development. Whether I respond negatively or positively to any specific show is beside the point. First, I see no reason to believe that cutting-edge theater is being eclipsed by the new mass-oriented shows. Second, the commercial shows are clearly broadening the base of theater-goers, and I say that's good for everybody.


"Thick-Soled Shoes" (Botinki na tolstoi podoshve), a production of Art-Partner XXI, plays July 13 at 7 p.m. at the Mossoviet Theater, 16 Bolshaya Sadovaya. Tel. 299-2035. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes. "A Quartet for Laura" (Kvartet dlya Laury), a production of Art-Club XXI, plays July 16, 17, 20 and 21 at 7 p.m. at the Theater Yunogo Zritelya, 10 Mamonovsky Pereulok. Tel. 299-5360. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.