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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Pushkin Not for Purists

Yury Lyubimov's dramatization -- I would actually call it a theatricalization f of "Eugene Onegin" at the Taganka Theater may not satisfy Pushkin purists. And it will not satisfy those who, as one character quips to healthy laughter during the show, are "tired of Lyubimov."

I suppose somebody somewhere might be tired of Lyubimov. At 83 years of age, this former actor-turned-world-class-director has been a prominent figure f often a controversial one f in Russian theater for over half a century. The Taganka, which he founded in 1964, was establishing a new theatrical aesthetic when Vladimir Putin was still a cute kid in a red Pioneer neckerchief.

Someone might look at "Onegin," yawn and say, "Been there, seen that." And maybe they'd be right to some extent. But they'd be missing the point.

In this production, Lyubimov has created a celebration of theater in general, and of his own unique brand in particular. Least of all was he interested in the traditional details of Pushkin's verse novel about an aimless St. Petersburg dandy who kills his only friend in a duel and doesn't realize he has passed on a good woman's love until it is too late.

The novel is mostly there, although it is rearranged and spread out among a large cast of actors who share the utterances of Onegin, his romantic buddy Lensky, the spurned Tatyana and Pushkin himself. Soon enough, we come to recognize that Dmitry Mulyar is the principal Onegin and Lyubov Selyutina the primary Tatyana; that Yury Mazikhin plays Lensky and Yulia Kuvarzina plays Lensky's sweetheart Olga.

But it is important to Lyubimov's conception that the characters not be identified clearly. Every Russian knows this novel almost by heart and, by dressing five actors and five actresses in identical Onegin and Tatyana costumes, Lyubimov pays homage to his audience f he knows they know who is who even if everyone on stage looks the same.

Several comical Pushkin figures wander the stage in "I Love Pushkin" or "My Pushkin" T-shirts. One, the versatile Timur Badalbeili, who later plays Tatyana's rather ridiculous husband, slaps on a sideburn and becomes a spitting image of the poet.

This is where Lyubimov comes closest to making real contact with Pushkin's novel f in the relationship of the audience to it and its author. This production continually toys with the notion that "Eugene Onegin" and Pushkin are omnipresent in Russian life.

Lyubimov underscores that with a delightful theatrical game in the finale when he sends an actor into the crowd to encourage spectators to recite any single line from the novel. As soon as someone does, the line is shouted back to the stage where a funky rhythmic chorus lead by Felix Antipov immediately catches it up and begins singing the text from that random beginning.

It is a glorious, ingenious scene that declares, "Scratch a Russian, find 'Eugene Onegin.'"

But if you come to this show hoping to find the reverent romanticism of, say, Tchaikovsky's opera f bits of Tchaikovsky's music are interspersed with clunky, quirky fragments from Alfred Schnittke and Vladimir Martynov f you will be disappointed, if not dazed. For this "Eugene Onegin" is really about the theater of Yury Lyubimov. It is a banquet of the styles and devices that Lyubimov has developed in his storied, 36-year directing career.

The show consists of running episodes, similar to numbers in a circus performance. Transitions are lightning-quick, facilitated by musical interludes, short comic scenes, glimmering flashlights piercing the dark or by action in one place overtaking what has been transpiring elsewhere. The actors invariably address the spectators directly and vigorously.

The lyrical aspects of the novel are usually undermined by theatrical shenanigans. When Tatyana falls in love with Onegin, an actor above her releases an inflated balloon that buzzes and squeals above the stage until it drops, limp, on the floor.

Selyutina's Tatyana is nothing like the image that has come down to us in the 170 years since the novel was written. She is more like Tatyana 20-years on, looking back on the follies of her youth with irony and some f but not too much f affection.

Boris Blank's two-tiered set of cubicles that can be opened or closed off by curtains is a major participant in the goings-on. The actors play the curtains as if they were percussive instruments, sliding them briskly back and forth in syncopation. When the cubicles are closed, the actors perform scenes of shadow theater behind them.

All of this, visually and dynamically, is a throwback to such famous old Lyubimov shows as "The Good Person of Setzuan," "Ten Days that Shook the World" and "Listen! Mayakovsky." But, unlike Lyubimov's recent revival of "Good Person," this is no museum piece. It may be unwieldy and it may sag at times, but most often it pops with theatrical energy.

I'm not tired of Lyubimov. I say, bring on more of this!

"Eugene Onegin" plays at 7 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday at the Taganka Theater, located at 76 Ulitsa Zemlyanoi Val. Metro Taganskaya. Tel. 915-1217. Running Time: 2 hours, 15 mins.