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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'Theater Idiot' Stages Yevreinov

For a guy who started out as a student at an electronics institute, Roman Kozak has made an impressive tour of the theater world.

He was once one of the leading young actors at the world-famous Moscow Art Theater. He has been both a director and actor at Moscow's tiny Chelovek Theater-Studio, where he first gained international renown for his acclaimed production of Lyudmila Petrushevskaya's "Cinzano." He spent the better part of five years - in the late 1980s and early 1990s - directing shows in Sweden, Poland, Germany and France. He founded the Moscow Art Theater's Fifth Studio and served as the artistic director of the Stanislavsky Theater.

In 1995, Kozak was named an assistant to Oleg Yefremov, the artistic director at the Chekhov Art Theater, at the same time that he returned to his original theatrical home as director of an uneven, occasionally brilliant production of Slawomir Mrozek's "Love in the Crimea."

This is not to suggest that Kozak - now 42 years old and ready to unveil his latest production, "The Main Thing," at the Art Theater on Tuesday - has experienced consistent success. His stints at the Fifth Studio (1990-91) and the Stanislavsky Theater (1991-92) lasted only a year each and produced negligible results. Additionally, most of the shows he has directed since returning to the Art Theater have not matched his potential.

Even "Love in the Crimea," the first act of which was breathtaking, flopped at the box office. The show closed after just 15 performances.

Could that be why Kozak has again chosen to tackle Nikolai Yevreinov's "The Main Thing," a play he originally staged with tremendous success in the mid 1990s at the Riga Theater of Russian Drama? Kozak responds with an emphatic "no!"

"It's a radical step to stage the same play a second time," he explained, "but after doing it the first time, I was left with the feeling that I hadn't done it right."

The Moscow production, he said, will be "completely different." Yevreinov's play, written and first produced in Petrograd in 1921, concerns the mysterious Dr. Fregoli - possibly a psychologist, possibly a shaman - who comes to town to heal people of their psychological problems. After receiving some townspeople under the guise of a fortune teller, he approaches a theater troupe and offers work to three actors - they are to enter the lives of several depressed and lonely people and play the roles of individuals who are capable of bringing meaning to those loners' lives.

The notion of the theater and actors commanding the power to combat social and psychological ills is one Yevreinov pursued in many of his nearly three dozen plays and numerous theoretical tracts. "Actors in Yevreinov," explained Kozak, playing on the old Russian term for nurse, sister of mercy, "are actors of mercy."

It is an idea Kozak himself subscribes to.

"Theater," he suggested, "is probably the only thing that can save a life. And, as a total idiot engaged in theater, I believe that."

In fact, Kozak points to the passion and enthusiasm of Russian theater as one of the reasons he has come to prefer working here rather than abroad.

"The theater profession brings suffering and we Russians like suffering," he said. "Abroad, it brings no suffering. It's just a job. Here, people will rip their heart out for it. They'll die for it." But Yevreinov was interested in more than just healing and the fanatical nature of the theater. He was also fascinated by the motivation of human behavior. His examination of such topics as religion and biological instinct are also incorporated into "The Main Thing," although theater or even play-acting is at the fore.

It was Kozak's treatment of this intersection of themes in the Riga production that left him feeling as though he had not plumbed the play's real depths. "I only had six weeks to rehearse, and I had to do a big play quickly," he remarked. "I think I got a light, humorous show, nothing more. A 'normal' show. But this is not a 'normal' play."

Kozak said that Fregoli is a "Bulgakov-type character who flies into Moscow in the 20th century to conduct an experiment." And he pointed out that Yevreinov's original working title for the play, "Christ-Harlequin," "really tells us where the author was headed." It is the union of sacred mystery and the light, irrepressible personality of Harlequin - a figure originating in the 16th-century Italian commedia dell'arte, or theater of masks - that Kozak hopes to achieve in his second production of the play. He emphasizes that the duality of his approach is signaled even in Yevreinov's own definition of the play's genre: "For some a comedy, for others a drama."

In his new production, Kozak has pared down the enormous four-act play, especially the second act depicting the theater company's comically chaotic rehearsal of an ancient drama. In the finale, he has added excerpts from Yevreinov's "A Merry Death," a 1908 harlequinade in which theater triumphs over death.

Starring in the show will be two actors who originally gained fame working for the renowned director Kama Ginkas. Viktor Gvozditsky, who performed in Ginkas's legendary productions of "Pushkin and Natalia," "Notes from Underground" and "We Play 'Crime,'" plays the central role of Dr. Fregoli. Oksana Mysina will join him as the Barefoot Dancer, an actress hired to aid a suicidal young man. Her performance in Ginkas' "K.I. from 'Crime'" is considered by many to be among the finest in Moscow during the 1990s.

The cast also includes two actors Kozak has worked with for years, Alexander Feklistov and Igor Zolotovitsky, as well as several of the Art Theater's most promising young talents - Darya Yurskaya, Vera Voronkova and Alexander Semchev.

"The Main Thing" (Samoye Glavnoye) plays Oct. 12 and 13 and Nov. 2 and 24 at 7 p.m. at the Chekhov Art Theater, 3 Kamergersky Pereulok. Tel. 229-8760. Nearest metro: Okhotny Ryad.