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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Zakharov Nearly Kills 'Dead Souls'

"Mystification" at the Lenkom Theater is Mark Zakharov's latest attempt to invent the wheel - to inform us theatrically that something is amiss in Russia.

This time - to keep the puns rolling as Zakharov himself is wont to do - the vehicle is Nina Sadur's dramatization of "Dead Souls," Nikolai Gogol's picaresque "epic poem." Essentially, Sadur's work is an original play based loosely on Gogol's characters.

Chichikov, the traveling rogue who buys up the papers of dead serfs to create the illusion of wealth, first appears to us in Italy (where Gogol himself wrote his famous novel). Perhaps he is a smuggler looking to make a quick buck, but fate brings him to a sultry woman we come to know as Pannochka - a Polish term meaning "young woman." For anyone familiar with Sadur's work, this figure is immediately recognizable as an emissary of the devil. An earlier play by Sadur, "Pannochka," is an exploration of Russia's devilish ways based on Gogol's story, "Viy."

In "Mystification," it is Pannochka who convinces Chichikov to return to Russia and seek his fortune by buying up "dead souls." Once back in his homeland, Chichikov is alternately confused, frightened and appalled by the rogues and the seemingly endless madness he encounters. And if, at first, he was skeptical of the seductive Pannochka, the more he bogs down in the quagmire of Russian life, the more he is drawn to Pannochka's "dead" but attractive beauty. In fact, accompanied by one of Zakharov's trademark explosions, Pannochka eventually even gives birth to Chichikov's dead baby. The innovation of this production is to present Chichikov as a well-mannered, even cultured, young man of taste rather than the usual bumbling bumpkin. This allows us, through Chichikov's horrified eyes, to perceive the chaos confronting him all the more vividly.

"Mystification" suffers from the usual Zakharov excesses. If there is one thing Zakharov is not, it is subtle. He leaves nothing to the spectator's imagination, pounding us mercilessly with sound, light and action to make sure we sense everything he has in mind.

Zakharov's style is to tell a joke and then follow it up with "Get it? Get it? Get it?" His productions often leave me feeling as though I have been violated. As though someone has crawled into my brain to think for me and into my body to feel for me. I prefer a little more air in theater, a little more trust in my ability to make connections, but this is not an absolute criticism of "Mystification." There are unquestionably some effective moments in this show.

As Chichikov, Dmitry Pevtsov cuts a sympathetic figure. If he does not seem to change or grow much during the course of the action, he does maintain a sensitivity that encourages us to believe his repulsion at the anarchy around him and his attraction to Pannochka's beauty. As Pannochka, the red-haired Anna Bolshova projects well a hot-and-cold sexuality and exhibits an excellent singing voice.

Zakharov, along with designer Oleg Sheintsis, sees to it that there is always something bizarre going on on stage. The show begins as a weird bit of electronic debris begins to flop about the stage, and from there on, much of what we witness is "useless nonsense." That is true of the pontifications of the local Governor (Alexander Sirin); of a suggestion by Manilov (Viktor Rakov) to build a bridge over a pond on which merchants can trade their wares; or of a dense conversation between three coachmen.

But if all this folderol is a fair satirical metaphor for the Russian way of life, it makes hard going as drama early on. It is not until the appearance of the rotund Sobakevich (Sergei Stepanchenko), shortly before the end of the first act, that the performance achieves focus. Stepanchenko matter-of-factly clips off his character's short comic utterances as if they were pearls of wisdom. When Chichikov begins a phrase by saying, "The Russian state ...," Sobakevich quickly interrupts him by asking drily, "Where?"

After the intermission, Chichikov's encounter with the aggressive Nozdryov (Sergei Chonishvili) is another highlight. Entirely departing from Gogol's novel, this comic scene of madness, drunkenness and miscommunication is set in the midst of a contemporary war, with explosions going off left and right.

"Mystification," for all the attempted and occasionally successful stabs at humor, is a grim work. That was Sadur's intention and Zakharov - when he is not so busy overwhelming us that paying attention becomes difficult - did bring that out.

"Mystification" (Mistifikatsiya) plays Jan. 28 at 7 p.m. at the Lenkom Theater, 6 Ulitsa Malaya Dmitrovka. Tel. 299-0708. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.


CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK: Jerzy Grotowski, the Polish director, educator and theoretician who was one of the world's most important theatrical voices in the second half of the 20th century, died Jan. 14 in Italy after a long illness. He was 65.

Grotowski began his career in 1959 when he founded the Theater of 13 Rows in Opole. In 1965 he renamed his troupe the Laboratory Theater and moved it to Wroclaw, which is where he achieved world-wide acclaim for his experiments in transforming traditional actor-audience relationships.

Grotowski's notion of a "poor theater," theoretically consolidated in his 1968 book "Towards a Poor Theater," called for a simplification of means and devices that would make the theatrical experience more intense and immediate.

Grotowski emigrated to the West in 1982, spending some time at the University of California at Irvine, before founding the Centro di Lavoro in Pontedera, Italy. In the West, the director was mostly engaged in work that he described as "paratheatrical," projects that explored the nature and uses of theatricality, if not their application in theatrical productions. Both the Centro di Lavoro and the Grotowski Center in Wroclaw will continue their activities.