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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

New Life Blossoms in Promising Debut




I admit it, I'm a sucker for good news. Which brings me directly to "A New Life" at the Playwright and Director Center.


This debut play by Yekaterina Shagalova is a tragifarce set in the woods about the hellacious denouement of a relationship. It is not masterful, mature drama or theater, so it's worth setting your sights properly before seeing the show.


But mastery is not the point of the Playwright and Director Center, which works out of, and enjoys the support of, the Russky Dom Theater. This venue proposes taking chances by giving artists the opportunity to test themselves. In "A New Life," that brought dividends on all fronts.


Shagalova belongs to one of Russia's great writing mafias. In the word "mafia," I hearken back to the Sicilian connotation of "family."


She is, respectively, the daughter and granddaughter of the acclaimed screenwriters Alexander Mindadze and Anatoly Grebnev, as well as the niece of the well-known playwright Yelena Gremina. There are more writers in the extended family, but this is a theater review, not a Biblical genealogy. Anyway, I point out the relationships because I find them interesting, not because they are important for Shagalova's play.


"A New Life" is essentially a dialogue involving a woman who seeks out a man she still loves. He has dropped out of society and is in hiding with his vodka in the woods.


It is the kind of play that often drives me nuts with expository exchanges that keep the audience informed about the characters' past; drunk jokes; the requisite estrangements and reconciliations that prod the action in fits of fury and tenderness.


But Shagalova's characters have strong personalities and they never become stereotypes. Their speech, while occasionally serving an informational function, is natural and colloquial. Throughout the short performance, their story emerges as believable and unique. More than representing players in a make-believe drama, these people genuinely interact.


I suspect that the knot of problems plaguing the pair are distinctively Russian. Tsepov (Alexander Gruzdev), a drunken former actor, has barricaded himself in a forest hut after abandoning a wife, a daughter and one of his occasional flings, Natasha (Anna Sagalovich).


Natasha comes to his lair to save him from himself, whether he wants it or not, by the power of her own need for him. Natasha's stubbornness and tenacity, none of which diminishes her dignity or individuality, give a curious twist to the couple's loose relationship and keep it from becoming usual or banal.


Gruzdev, playing the alcoholic dropout who prefers oblivion to civilization's demands, on occasion pushes his character's sarcasm and frustration over the edge. I wonder if he wouldn't be more effective if he would suppress, if only a bit, his flailing and yelling. But, as is true of his character, there is a well of charm even in his excess. And Gruzdev works with convincing confrontational ease with his partner.


Sagalovich, it seems to me, is a find. Graceful, light on her feet and equally capable of evoking irony and drama, she has a deceptive self-effacing quality. She is the one who actually leads the performance, and yet the story the performance tells is Tsepov's. This is, in part, the author's intention, but Sagalovich is so right for the part she heightens the effect of the device.


Nikolai Ryabkov brilliantly handles the comic episodic role of Kuzmich, a hunter and Tsepov's occasional drinking partner. His backwoods manner and perfect timing make each of his limited lines a pearl.


The young director Vadim Dantsiger appears to have an excellent ear for contemporary drama. His production of Yelena Isayeva's "Judith," which christened the Playwright and Director Center in December, was notable primarily for its illumination of the text. In "A New Life," Dantsiger again provides a tasteful reading and creates an interesting atmosphere, partly through the frugal use of familiar music, but more through his work on the actors' rapport among themselves and with the text.


Dantsiger designed the effective set, a simple elevated platform slit in the middle to allow the actors to disappear or emerge from Tsepov's hut easily. Some feathery snow falls at a key moment and an oversized red ball swings like a pendulum when the finale is cut short.


"A New Life" is a fine example of unproved talent putting itself to the test. It may offer no spectacular flights or stunning discoveries, but it gives us satisfying, meaningful looks at an interesting new play and some artists I expect to hear more from in the future.


"A New Life" (Novaya Zhizn), a production of the Playwright and Director Center, plays March 12 at 7 p.m. at the Russky Dom Theater, 6/1 Sretensky Bulvar. Tel. 924-5990. Call for details of showings after March 12. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.


CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK: I must share a personal response to last week's national forum, "Theater: A Time of Changes." (See the Marquee column.) What we see and hear publicly in the theater community and, perhaps, among the Russian intelligentsia in general does not correspond to people's true opinions.


The majority of speeches from podiums over a two-day period called for independence and creative approaches to government support of the arts, but almost everyone I spoke to in private had no faith the forum could affect real change. Most expect the chief form of funding to remain government handouts and those now in power in the theater world will use their positions only for their own benefit. Largely for that reason, a proposal to establish regional reserves for independent projects was rejected.


Alexei Litvin, a director who has worked in Moscow and the provinces, said of many of the speeches, "It was all lies. What they first need to do is say, 'We won't steal anymore.' Then I might believe them."