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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'Judith' Is Fine Start for New Venue

When the Playwright and Director Center quietly unveiled its inaugural show at the Russky Dom Theater in December - a production of Yelena Isayeva's "Judith" - Moscow acquired another venue devoted to supporting new talent.

I don't mean that to sound as if there is already an abundance of such places. There really is only one other - the Debut Center at the House of Actors, which, since its founding in 1996, has introduced numerous new directors, writers, actors and plays. But, despite some definite triumphs, such as the launching of the career of the promising young director Garold Strelkov, the Debut Center has of late been serving up tame fare in tepid doses.

There is no guarantee that the Playwright and Director Center will be any different, although there are reasons to hope.

The center is the brainchild of playwright Alexei Kazantsev, a founding editor of the influential journal Dramaturg, or Playwright. In that capacity, Kazantsev has already had a major impact on the development of contemporary Russian drama. Almost every important new playwright in the 1990s has been published in Dramaturg, and the eight issues that have come out irregularly since 1993 have provided access to a large percentage of the decade's best plays, whether written by newcomers or established authors.

Along with Mikhail Roshchin, his co-editor at Dramaturg, and Alexander Saiko, who runs the Russky Dom Theater, Kazantsev has now tackled the task of organizing a space where new plays can be performed.

Kazantsev considers it significant that the Playwright and Director Center made a debut in 1998. In fact, despite a total lack of funding caused by the August bank collapse, he pushed to open his theater before the year ran out. "One hundred years ago," he says, "1898 was a propitious year for Russian culture. I don't mean only the founding of the Moscow Art Theater, but also the construction of the building that became the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. Like those people back then, we are already involved in creating the next century."

"Judith," a verse drama based on the apocryphal Biblical story of a woman bringing about the defeat of an invading army, is an admirable, if modest, beginning for the center.

Let me get my pesky complaints out of the way first.

Under the direction of Vadim Dantsiger, this production does not entirely overcome the limits of the cramped stage and, on the whole, the performance struggles to rise above the level of conscientious student work. While Dantsiger nicely maintained a brisk pace that suits the play well, he occasionally seemed not to trust his or the play's ability to convey the subtlety of the drama, settling instead on giving us pointless and/or irritating visual illustrations of it.

We see this in the dances that Marina Bronnikova choreographed to portray sexual encounters or the overdone victory celebration in the finale. Also, Dantsiger felt compelled to create an echo of Judith in childhood by introducing a young girl not called for by Isayeva.

Through no fault of the agile young actress, Asya Belaya, this move added a preciousness that undermines Isayeva's splendid severity.

Objections aside, however, this show left me with positive impressions. That is thanks primarily to Isayeva's fine play and Vera Voronkova's excellent performance of the title role.

Isayeva achieved something extremely rare in our time - she took on an exalted topic and wrote about it in verse while maintaining clarity in the diction and recognizability in the action.

There is nothing extraneous in this play. Judith, a widowed Jew from Bethulia, enters the enemy camp of the Assyrian general Holofernes (Alexander Gruzdev) withthe design of destroying him.

Doubts on the part of her carefree servant Yelima (Anna Yanovskaya) and efforts to deter her by Holofernes' animal-like chief guard Bagoas (Konstantin Chepurin) have no effect. Judith seduces Holofernes and kills him, bringing victory to the Jews over the Assyrians.

Isayeva's text leaps forward in short, meaty phrases. I caught myself comparing its efficiency and intensity to that of Jean Racine's neoclassical tragedies. I do not intend by that observation to put any undue burden of expectation on Isayeva - for instance, I found her play "Apricot Heaven" at the Debut Center to be diffuse and unconvincing - but the purity and dramatic velocity of "Judith" are impressive.

Moreover, Isayeva deepened the conflict of the tale by having Judith clearly fall in love with Holofernes before killing him. Her choice of carrying out her duty before God and her people thus comes at no less a price than the elimination of her own happiness.

Voronkova not only plays a person obsessed with an idea, she plays a woman sensitive to all the nuances and dangers of her position. She is responsive to the charm of her adversary and understands how vulnerable that makes her. But it is precisely in her acute self-awareness that she enjoys such an advantage over Holofernes.

With her darting eyes, her slightly out-of-breath speech and her angular though graceful movements, Voronkova beautifully conjoins two images - the abstraction of a mythical heroine and the familiarity of a contemporary woman.

Anna Koleichuk's set consists primarily of a tarp that can be drawn up by ropes to create desert tents or withdrawn to leave open space.

"Judith" is an encouraging start for the Playwright and Director Center. It shows a willingness to take chances, perhaps the most important quality in any new endeavor. If any more proof were needed of that, the next production is scheduled to be Mark Ravenhill's controversial London and international hit "Shopping and Fucking."

"Judith," (Iudif), a production of the Playwright and Director Center, plays Jan. 18, 25 and 26 at 7 p.m. at the Russky Dom Theater, 6/1 Sretensky Bulvar. Tel. 924-5990. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.