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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lyubimov, East Storm Fest

AVIGNON, France -- The sound of a flute merges with the sound of drumbeat. A saxophone executes a melody and fills the streets of this medieval town in the Provence region of France with its music. It is July, and the Festival d'Avignon is underway.

During the world-renowned festival of music, theater and dance, the city's population of 120,000 nearly doubles, and a carnival atmosphere prevails. Costumed actors circulate in street cafes distributing flyers and inviting diners to performances at all hours of the day and night. More than 500 theatrical groups will put on shows at venues that range from the 3,000-seat inner courtyard of the Pope Palace to converted warehouses and storefronts.

The festival is the subject of a great deal of attention throughout France in part because it offers more than an opportunity for the public to learn about the latest happenings in the European performing arts: It is also a place where professionals do business. On street corners and at cocktail parties, Europe's leading directors and actors come together to talk shop and make deals.

Amid all of this is Yury Lyubimov's Taganka Theater troupe of Russia in their first-ever trip to Avignon. The Taganka troupe has come to perform Peter Weiss' "Marat/Sade," a tragi-farce they first performed in Moscow in the fall of 1998. The consistently sold-out performances, in Russian with French subtitles, have enjoyed favorable reviews in the French press.

No surprise, considering that Lyubimov is one of the festival's heavyweights, a fact not unrelated to his planned tenure next spring as head of Moscow's International Theatrical Olympics f with participation by troupes from Japan, the United States, Greece and a number of other European countries.

At the Avignon premiere of "Marat/Sade" f open-air at the Cloister of the Celestines f last week, however, things didn't look good. Scattered rain showers f otherwise unheard of in Provence in July f had soaked the stage. Lyubimov inspected its iron grillwork and wooden floor with a worried look. The iron was slippery, the floor unsuitable for the play's dancing scenes. Plus, the theater's seat cushions were soggy with rainwater.

Despite all of that, however, the fast-paced, high-energy show, with its tap dance, acrobatics and rap music, thrilled 500 spectators in the country where "Marat/Sade" premiered in a staging by England's Peter Brook in the mid-1960s and earned lasting popularity. And, when Irina Lindt f who plays Charlotte Corday f picked up a violin and started to play, the audience broke into wildly enthusiastic applause.

At a press conference before the show, Lyubimov explained why he chose "Marat/Sade" f set in an insane asylum where doctors treat patients by allowing them to play out dialogue between French revolutionary Jean Paul Marat and author Marquis de Sade f for the festival.

"I consider this play a beautiful circus f just like Russia is today," Lyubimov said. "At the same time, I feel that it's autobiographical. My plays were prohibited by [Soviet] censors a number of times. Here, we see the Marquis de Sade's text censored by the director of the hospital."

Eastern and Central European theater is represented at Avignon, too, in keeping with festival director Bernard Faivre d'Arcier's policy of integrating the Eastern European theatrical world into European theater.

Among the many offerings was Hungarian director Laszlo Hudi and his Mozgo Haz theater's production of Anton Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard."

Further, a number of participating theaters combined their efforts under the heading "From the Baltics to the Balkans," the central project of which was "Hotel Europe," a collective effort by groups from nine countries performing nine short plays reflecting the problems, aspirations and prospects of their peoples.

The "Hotel Europe" is a refuge for displaced persons and cultures of Eastern Europe. The premise is that a pair of Russian newlyweds who want to celebrate their honeymoon in Western Europe find themselves facing the problems they hoped to run away from. Prostitutes, bodyguards, money launderers and small-time crooks populate each of the 15-minute-long plays.

"The short plays come from countries that have lost their identity, countries at a crossroads," project supervisor and playwright Goran Stefanovsky said of "Hotel Europe." "They have freed themselves from the weight of old values without acquiring a set of new ones."