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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Taking Pushkin Out of Quarantine




P-Day is fast approaching -- the 200th anniversary of Alexander Pushkin's birth on June 6. And in addition to all those roadside Pushkin billboards, blitz "Onegin" readings on television, Pushkin books, Pushkin posters, Pushkin carryout bags, Pushkin trinkets and Pushkin trivia, we've got Pushkin theater too.


At the Theater Na Pokrovke, Sergei Artsibashev has just unveiled his contribution to the merriment of Pushkin mania with a show called "Quarantine - Boldino Autumn." It is a play by Artsibashev and Dmitry Krymov based in part on the poetry, prose, drama and letters that Pushkin wrote during what is considered one of the most prolific and fruitful periods of his life - the autumn of 1830 which he spent cooped up on his country estate in Boldino because of a plague quarantine.


The play has fun with the notion of Pushkin kitsch, especially in an extended scene when Artsibashev, playing Pushkin, lists one by one the poet's prominent ancestors. With the naming and description of each, he pulls out a gypsum bust of Pushkin and places it on the floor or on special platforms until the stage is littered with little Pushkins.


Other lighthearted moments include twin Gogols (Viktor and Vadim Yatsuk) pondering the notion that "Pushkin is our everything" or a curly-headed Pushkin look-alike (Yevgeny Buldakov) turning somersaults and confronting the tsar.


In the finale, a motley crew of peasants huddles at center stage and "reminisces" about the poet, reciting some of the texts from Daniil Kharms' famous "Anecdotes from the Life of Pushkin." The quirky, bucolic tales of Pushkin getting up for a daily morning swim and turning up his nose at the body odor of peasants point to Pushkin's status as a folk figure as well as providing a contrast to the complex picture of Pushkin that has emerged in the course of the performance.


Artsibashev's impersonation of Pushkin is only approximate. He does not seem to have set himself the task of recreating an accurate image of the poet historically, physically or even in spirit. Instead, he gives us a compelling look at an artist, a creative being whose life is closing in on him through debts, confrontations with the authorities and the sticky wickets of his many flirtations and loves.


This may be the show's biggest drawback, for anyone seeking biographical or period-piece theater will be disappointed.


Artsibashev's interpretation achieves legitimacy if and when we accept Pushkin as a universal figure capable of including in his image, aura and shadow all other artists and the problems they share. In fact, the closer Artsibashev draws to what we know best of Pushkin - his poetry - the less convincing he is. I found the notion of Pushkin writhing on the floor in creative torments as he struggled to find rhymes for works-in-progress to be untenable.


Far more often, however, this portrait of a poet strays into gray areas that allow the authors, the director, the actor and the audience to draw powerful generalizations.


Employing only a few simple strokes, Artsibashev suggests that Pushkin's battles with censors and enemies were an archetype for all Russian writers: The odious figure of Count Benckendorff (Gennady Chulkov), one of Pushkin's main adversaries, eerily transforms into the figure of Stalin. Another dual image is the rope strung across the stage to keep the quarantined Pushkin in place for health reasons - it repeatedly emerges as a metaphor for political persecution.


But the central conflict is of the writer with the banal complications of his daily life. This Pushkin is tormented by his jealousy of his teenage bride-to-be Natalya Goncharova (Maria Kostina); his liaisons with other women; his battles to make a small financial profit by his writing; and his immersion in debt.


An especially powerful moment in the play comes as Artsibashev's Pushkin steps forward among the spectators and begs forgiveness for his inability to pay back loans. I say this not because the actor publicly assured me he knew I would lend him 5,000 rubles if only I could, but because by bringing his money problems directly to us, Artsibashev cut through everything that separates us from Pushkin as a historical figure and as a theatrical character.


Pushkin suffering and craving for money is not the Pushkin we see standing benevolently on Pushkin Square in downtown Moscow; and an actor's imploring face a foot away from ours breaks down the safety and distance of the stage, no matter how small and close it is.


Co-author Krymov also designed the excellent set which is functional and suggestive. A rope defines the quarantine as well as persecution; colored leaves symbolize autumn; suitcases remind us of Pushkin's temporary stay in Boldino and provide the material for tables and desks. Lighting designer Alexander Yeryomin made fine use of dim, directional illumination.


"Quarantine" is Artsibashev's third production in a season that has emerged as a transitional one for him. In addition to directing, Artsibashev has performed the lead in every show. What was something of a surprise when he stepped out from behind the director's table and played Hamlet in 1997 has now become a commonplace.


This has often left his troupe filling in the secondary roles. In fact, "Quarantine" could be called a one-man show for a cast of 15. I don't know what - if anything - that says about the company at the Theater Na Pokrovke, but it says a great deal about Artsibashev. He clearly is flexing his creative muscles, growing as a director and developing as an actor.


I thought "Quarantine" was a bit uneven, but at its best it is very good. Where it is best is in Artsibashev making Pushkin's problems his, and our, own.


"Quarantine - Boldino Autumn" (Karantin - Boldinskaya osen) plays May 23 at 7 p.m. at the Theater Na Pokrovke, 50/2 Ulitsa Pokrovka. Tel. 917-0263. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.