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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tolstoy's Two Table-Thump

Leo Tolstoy disliked the theater and thought William Shakespeare a hack. That did not stop the man with the oversized talent, ego and lust for both life and truth from writing plays.

From the 1860s to his death in 1910, Tolstoy wrote over a dozen dramas, comedies and sketches, of which four are performed most often. Two, both written in 1900, have recently been revived - "The Living Corpse" at the Hermitage Theater and "The Light Shines in the Darkness" at the Chekhov Moscow Art Theater.

In "The Light Shines," director Vyacheslav Dolgachyov went the traditional route. Here, a big cast in a big play about big social issues performs on Eduard Kochergin's spacious set. The set's hints at a visual metaphor - the jagged, broken walls and collapsible ceiling suggest a disintegrating home - do not overpower the basic realism of the environment.

The show unfolds slowly, despite its whirlwind of events and characters, and, as in anything Tolstoy wrote after "Anna Karenina," we get an earful of furrowed-brow philosophy.

Tolstoy composed "Light" when he, like his hero Nikolai Saryntsov, was contemplating giving away his possessions and escaping from his home. This lends the work urgency, even if the text remains contrived.

I'm not a fan of preaching in playhouses, which fairly sums up my response to "Light," although the performance did have a few moments of genuine illumination. These involved Diana Korzun's fine performance as a young woman who opposes her father's rejection of privilege, and a late scene led by Natalya Yegorova.

Yegorova's Marya, the suffering wife of the harried Saryntsov (Boris Shcherbakov), breaks away from a ball to beg her husband not to abandon her and their family, even after she has coerced him into signing over his wealth to her rather than to charity as he wished. It is an excruciating scene that Yegorova played subtly, bringing depth and understanding to a woman who until then had often appeared bitchy and small.

But, in order to enjoy these isolated moments, one must sit through over three hours of 33 characters bursting repeatedly, as if they were flammable liquids on a burner, into heated discussions about poverty, wealth, status, social and familial duty, religion and more. Dolgachyov wisely avoided choosing sides in the battles, but Tolstoy's play features too much table-thumping for me.

At the Hermitage, Mikhail Levitin attempted to delve into Tolstoy's "The Living Corpse" - a tale about a man who tries to leave his wife and finds that neither the church nor the law will let him - and emerge with a modern interpretation. He has succeeded only to a limited degree: in part, I suspect, because Tolstoy's drama cannot entirely be brought up to date and, in part, because Levitin has apparently lost touch with his own aesthetic.

Lately, Levitin has drifted away from the quirky eccentricities and focused humor that characterized his best shows of the '90s and developed a less effective, more amorphous style. In "The Living Corpse," Levitin contrasts elements of the extreme grotesque with a touching lyricism, although he never quite pulls them together.

What works best in "The Living Corpse" is the lyrical side represented by Yury Belyayev as Fyodor Protasov - the "living corpse" who wants to live according to his own conscience, not by society's rules - and Irina Bogdanova as Masha, the "free" Gypsy girl with whom he briefly runs away. Providing them effective support in occasional dance scenes are actors from Gennady Abramov's Class of Expressive Plastic Body Movement.

The culmination of Tolstoy's play occurs during the court scene, when it becomes public knowledge that Protasov faked his own death in order to break with his wife and let her marry the man he believes she loves. Levitin brings out the judges early in the scene and keeps them on stage - intrusively, they take notes and watch the story unfold, thus putting on trial not only Protasov, but all those around him.

Tolstoy, however, is a wordy, stubborn playwright. Where a few strokes would do to paint a character, he pours on color in buckets. And Levitin often follows his lead, drawing harsh, over-the-top performances from numerous members of the cast. This makes for a show that is often drawn-out and heavy-handed.

David Borovsky's nondescript set makes sparing use of basic theatrical props - double doors at one side, two floor rugs hanging freely at the center and numerous chairs set against a windowless, semi-circular rear wall.

"The Living Corpse" is more ambitious than "The Light Shines in the Darkness," although both shows betray Tolstoy's basic disdain for the theater. It seems to me that theater is best when suggesting and evoking, rather than declaring, as is Tolstoy's wont.

"The Light Shines in the Darkness" (I Svet vo Tme Svetit) plays Nov. 25 at 7 p.m. at the Chekhov Art Theater at 3 Kamergersky Pereulok. Metro Okhotny Ryad. Tel. 229-8760. Running time: 3 hours, 10 minutes.

"The Living Corpse" (Zhivoi Trup) plays Nov. 20 and 24 at 7 p.m. at the Hermitage Theater at 3 Karetny Ryad. Metro Pushkinskaya. Tel. 209-2076. Running time: 3 hours, 10 minutes.