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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

See One 'Play,' Get 3 Free

Call it an oversight, call it a timely introduction to the Golden Mask festival that opens March 12 - but I am only now getting around to Alexei Levinsky's production of "Play" for his own ascetically named Theater Studio.

"Play," a combination of four Samuel Beckett pieces - "Ohio Exprompt," "Footfalls," "Catastrophe" and "Play" - opened last season. It has been nominated for a Golden Mask award in the Innovation category, along with Yevgeny Grishkovets' one-man show, "How I Ate a Dog."

Levinsky is one of the more intriguing figures lurking in the shadows of the Moscow theater scene. He began his career as an actor but switched to directing some 15 years ago. He has both a taste and a feel for the paradoxical. He knows it from the inside out. His minimalist productions of plays by Chekhov, Ostrovsky and Moli?re have brought to these well-worked authors a fresh - well, let's say - zing.

Levinsky almost invariably works in small spaces, giving him the opportunity to actively cultivate his relationship with his audience. And he has a way of skewing familiar material in a decidedly understated way so that we tend to see it coming at us from an entirely unexpected angle.

Naturally, this has guaranteed that the mainstream has passed the director by. But, throughout the years, he has continued to do what he does well and, as a result, an aura of self-sufficiency has grown up around him.

Samuel Beckett is a natural for Levinsky. The writer's austerity, laconicism and rigid simplicity suit the director to a T. A few years ago, Levinsky staged a strong version of Beckett's "End Game" at Okolo, the Theater Near the Stanislavsky House, on whose small stage "Play" is also performed.

"Ohio Exprompt," "Footfalls" and "Catastrophe," three short texts written between 1976 and 1982 and running roughly 10 minutes each, are played as if they are parts of a whole linked by the crooning of Elvis Presley. Most of the actors remain on stage observing the proceedings with blank disinterest even when they are not performing. Meanwhile, as is proper for Beckett's drama, those who are engaged in the act of performance have what I might call profound tunnel vision. They are exclusively absorbed in their specific activity.

"Ohio Exprompt" features a Reader (Viktor Plotnov) and a Listener (Alexei Moshkin) sitting at a table doing just what you would expect. "Footfalls" observes May (Tatyana Reshatkova) pacing the floor as she speaks to her invalid mother, identified only as a Female Voice (Tatyana Lominadze). In "Catastrophe" a Director (Moshkin) and his assistant (Lominadze) arrange the "great final scene" with the almost motionless, statue-like Hero (Plotnov).

The cast works deliberately, but without a breath of the heaviness and pretentiousness that often creeps into Russian interpretations of Beckett. It is clear that the actors trust Levinsky and that Levinsky trusts Beckett. The result is an intangible meeting of minds and purposes. If it is virtually impossible to pinpoint just how that is accomplished, it is quite evident in the assurance, the irony and the clarity of the performance we see.

Levinsky, while trusting Beckett's idiosyncrasies implicitly, does not remain a slave to him. He shifts accents and brings out new intonations. He may achieve this by "defying" author's directions, such as leaving total silence when an actor reads Beckett's direction that bells ring or by providing bright light when an actor reads the direction that the light "grows dimmer." On occasion he evokes more expressiveness from an actor than Beckett might have expected. Viktor Plotnov's wry performance of the imperturbable Hero in "Catastrophe" is a prime example.

Nadezhda Krestinina's set also mildly resists Beckett's dictates. In "Catastrophe," for instance, she provides a trio of bricks and a few chairs in place of the empty stage called for by the author.

The title piece of this collection, "Play," was written the earliest, in 1963, and preceded the more severely minimalist works of Beckett's later period. In it, a wife (Yelena Papanova), a husband (Moshkin) and his lover (Zhanna Epple) stand at rostrums in semi-darkness and simultaneously describe, from their own points of view, the events that have interlaced their lives.

The actors, confined to their positions at the rostrums, bring a tremendous sense of personality to these people, each of whom considers him or herself to be the figure in control.

One thing this production reminds us of is the fact that Beckett, 50 years after his debut, 30 years after receiving the Nobel Prize for literature and 10 years after his death, still represents the ultimate in experimental drama and avant-garde theater.

Levinsky is one of the few Russian directors who is capable of comfortably going out on a limb with Beckett. "Play" won't bring Levinsky any closer to mass recognition, but it does reaffirm his admirable position as a director with a talent for the offbeat.

"Play" (Igra), a production of the Theater Studio, plays March 15 and 20 at 5 p.m. on the small stage of Okolo, the Theater Near the Stanislavsky House, located at 9 Voznesensky Pereulok. Metro Pushkinskaya. Tel. 290-2557. Running time: 1 hour, 10 minutes.