Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Out of Context, Williams Works

Yury Pogrebnichko's nearly hallucinatory production of Tennessee Williams' "Portrait of a Madonna" at Okolo, the Theater Near the Stanislavsky House, does not cater to all tastes.

It is unsparingly bleak and at times dauntingly obscure. Outwardly, set in something reminiscent of a proto-Soviet labor camp environment, it has little to do with the way we usually see Williams' work, a fragile world of longing, seeming decorum and real decay.

Perhaps that is why I found this show so forceful. Because Pogrebnichko did not attempt to portray something he does not know f the torpid delicacy of Williams' southern United States f and instead struck directly at the heart of the playwright's theme of cosmic loneliness. This is Tennessee Williams removed from New Orleans to a generic, rusting hole-in-the-wall in Magadan or Kolyma.

Pogrebnichko's triumph is that in "violating" the geographical and cultural trappings of the original, he created a tough, moving work of universal meaning.

Williams wrote "Portrait of a Madonna" in the early 1940s, simultaneously with the first of his major plays, "The Glass Menagerie." The hotel-dwelling "madonna" of the title f an aging, confused Southern belle named Miss Lucretia Collins f recurs in various guises in Williams' subsequent plays. She has only the slimmest of links left with the real world, her universe is an unsettling mix of dream, imagination and memory.

Pogrebnichko expertly uses a roving video camera and an on-stage television monitor to put us in the cross-fire between the present and the past, and to stir doubt as to how much we can trust what Miss Collins says. Scenes we have seen transpire are suddenly repeated silently from a different angle on the monitor. Backstage goings-on that are beyond our purview are broadcast to us by electrical signal. We are increasingly challenged to distinguish what is actually happening, what is remembered and what is imagined.

Miss Collins wistfully notes how "long" sidewalks are in summer, but the elevator boy Frank reminds her that it is not summer. As if echoing him, the video cam operator (Yury Kantomirov) shows us a scene of people bundled in fur coats.

What becomes unmistakably evident in the swirl of conflicting images is that whatever Miss Collins' world is made of f lies, fabrications or recollections f the sum total of it, for better or worse, is what comprises her life. Lilia Zagorskaya plays Miss Collins with little of the traditional Williams whimsy. She is so earthbound in her tattered khaki sweater-dress that she is almost reptilian. Like everyone else in the production, she belabors her speech as though the meaning of even the simplest words is escaping her. Her motions about her hotel room and even her gestures are limited and repetitive. Despite occasional flaccid bursts of temperament, she is on the verge of slipping into nonbeing.

Miss Collins may be imagining that a certain Richard Martin keeps entering her room to "satisfy his instincts." When she summons the hotel management, she says she requires protection, but one wonders if she really wants to brag that she is still capable of inciting sexual arousal. We, with the hotel emissaries, suspect there is no such man, and when she later claims to be pregnant, we are inclined to believe that she is properly being spirited off to an asylum.

Nick the porter (Yury Pavlov) and his sidekick Frank (Alexander Zyblev) are sent to reassure Miss Collins until the doctor (Ivan Sigorskikh) arrives. These two "saviors" at times barely seem to be people. They are blank, slow and impassive. What differentiates them is the older Nick's nebulous inklings of compassion. Young Frank is more inclined to vague impatience and insensitivity.

In the trio's abortive conversations, we learn that Miss Collins has lived in this hotel "penthouse" for some 20 or 30 years and that she has always maintained a close relationship with the church. Since her mother died, she has ventured out into the world only on Sundays to attend church services. Miss Collins believes her mother is still alive and will return any minute with something cold to drink.

The environment designed by Igor Nesmiyanov keeps our attention focused on the corroded metal walls of the stage-box. They, with the TV monitor, overpower the bits and pieces of props f stacks of Russian theater magazines, a battered piano, a pencil hanging from the wall on a string, a pink drape on the minuscule upstairs balcony that symbolizes most of Miss Collins' earthly possessions. Nadezhda Bakhvalova's ragged costumes imply military or prison garb adapted for civilian use by a scrap of color or lace.

Pogrebnichko's mannered minimalism occasionally tested my patience with its relentless stream of outlandish irony and visual metaphors, but that is not serious criticism. This is the director's trademark. What I find important is that he applied his customary methods to bring new life to an old play. Not pretty, this "Portrait" bears compelling witness to the illusory and tenuous nature of the human experience.

"Portrait of a Madonna" (Portret Madonny) plays Oct. 25 at 7 p.m. at Okolo, the Theater Near the Stanislavsky House, 9 Voznesensky Pereulok. 290-2557. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.