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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tongue-in-Cheek Tricks Abound in Theater Tales

Mossoviet TheaterFour actors preparing for a new performance. Rehearsals are more about fighting and flirting for Shamirov’s play.

It’s always a good thing when you walk into a theater and don’t get what you expect. Most of our lives are so set-in-stone and cut-and-dried that we can use a few surprises.

Viktor Shamirov likes pulling the wool over people’s eyes. He’s a past master at sleights of hand, ruses and mystifications.

In the case of “Exercises in the Beautiful,” a show that Shamirov directed on the small Stage Pod Kryshei at the Mossoviet Theater, there are several layers of trickery. The program declares that we are to see a play by a certain Vladimir Derkho. Or is it Enz Erich Krause? And is it “Exercises in the Beautiful” or is it something else?

Let’s just say the Mossoviet Theater web site doesn’t list any author at all on the production’s page, and leave it at that.

After all, we are seeing something. A play of some kind does exist. It is directed by Shamirov, and even stars him along with four other actors. True, only some of them really look like what they look like in actual fact, while others are well disguised.

Confused? Shamirov’s got you right where he wants you.

A small troupe of actors is taking a show on the road. The sole actress in the company has been replaced at the last minute by Alisa, a young ingenue who has had no time to rehearse. The idea is that the actors will gather a time or two before curtain time to go over their lines, but anyone who knows theater knows that nothing ever happens as planned.

Yes, the actors gather. But what transpires when they meet can hardly be called rehearsing. Drinking, yes. Arguing, yes. Fighting, yes. A tad of buffoonery, certainly. A bit of flirting, mais bien sur. But rehearsing?

As played by Anna Ostrovskaya, Alisa is cute and earnest. Still a student at a theater institute, all her convictions and illusions about the high calling of her art are still firmly in place. If she had her way, she would redo every one of these profligates who call themselves her partners on stage.

She is no less demanding of the smooth young man who is the group’s ambitious but hapless manager (Vladimir Prokoshin), and who is not-so-secretly in love with her.

The cast is led by the movie star Yevgeny, who has sworn off drink and is all business. Played by the real-life movie star Gosha Kutsenko, he is wonderfully down-to-earth, a simple man just trying to do a good job. At least, until he runs into some friends and starts drinking again.

His rival, of sorts, is the hard-drinking Vasily (Konstantin Yushkevich) who makes life impossible for everyone, and has every intention of abusing his privilege of getting to kiss the actress on stage. In any case, that is true until Yevgeny goes berserk and suddenly Vasily begins to look almost normal.

Craftily seeking out common ground among all these haywire personalities is the quiet and enigmatic Albert (Shamirov). He sympathizes with the poor actress but is powerless to make the others rehearse with her. And after their first performance flops miserably in some God-forsaken town, he is the first to blame the whole thing on that worthless Alisa who can’t act her way out of a paper bag.

We follow the company as it trundles from city to city, and the show — an 18th-century, cloak-and-dagger, philosophical costume drama — actually begins having success. In one of the final scenes, we see why that is, as the movie star, in character in the 18th-century play, steps out of character to offer some observations on enlightening themes.

Everyone’s tongue is constantly in-cheek, and it’s never entirely certain how many layers of masks that an actor is wearing at any given moment.

What does come through is an amusing piece about the impossibility of theater being anything but a debacle, and the undying faith that some people continue to have in theater’s ability to overcome all obstacles, and attain genuine meaning through human discourse.

The message in “Exercises in the Beautiful” occasionally gets lost in all the tomfoolery, but it is devised and acted with healthy and equal parts of sincerity and self-mockery. Some of the satire about theater life makes it sound almost like these actors actually compiled the text from their own experiences.

If nothing else, you must agree that Alisa is right. Theater is a great place. Even helpless damsels in distress can end up calling the shots.

“Exercises in the Beautiful” (Uprazhneniya v Prekrasnom) plays Dec. 19 and 26 at 7 p.m. on the Stage Pod Kryshei at the Mossoviet Theater, located at 16 Bolshaya Sadovaya Ulitsa. Metro Mayakovskaya. Tel. 699-2035. / Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.