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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Unexpected 'Kapnist Round Trip' Is Pure Levitin

hermitage theaterYevgeny Kulakov, right, as Tsar Pavel I, here showing his angry side in this quirky version of Vasily Kapnist's satire. ��
Aside from taxes and you-know-what, the absolute inevitabilities of life are few and far between. In Moscow, however, another phenomenon can be added to the list: Mikhail Levitin's Hermitage Theater will always, always toss up some strange show that fits no molds and suits no expectations.

The latest in this theater's long line of quirky works is "Kapnist Round Trip." This is not a musical, although it contains music written by Andrei Semyonov and Yuly Kim. It is not a production of Vasily Kapnist's 18th-century satire "Chicanery," because it is actually a play concocted by Kim about the events surrounding the banning of Kapnist's play in 1798. But it is not merely a play by Kim, either, because much of the production presents scenes drawn from the original play.

Kapnist, though now largely forgotten, was one of the first major satirical playwrights in Russian history. "Chicanery" not only lambasted corrupt bureaucrats with a directness that few of his predecessors dared employ, it also helped make the author one of the first writer-dissidents, if you will. His play so irritated the authorities that it was banned after just four performances.

Kim and Levitin espied in this story a tale for all times. A writer whose chief wish is to practice his art. A capricious and ignorant emperor, on whose whims everyone's fate depends. A government bureaucracy whose sole inclination is to grow fatter. Common people running in circles attempting to satisfy everyone but himself or herself.

Levitin and Kim get around the danger of staging scenes from a fairly stilted -- if also funny -- play from the 18th century by previewing the entire story in a single, opening monologue. Boris Romanov, playing the role of a certain Pravdin, or Mr. Truth, lays out in brief the whole narrative of how Kapnist's play about bribe-takers so angers Pavel I (Yevgeny Kulakov) that he exiles the writer during the first intermission. However, as the writer thinks that he is approaching the Ural Mountains in chains, it turns out he is actually re-entering the city limits of St. Petersburg. Pavel is so pleased with the second half of the play, in which the handsome Pryamikov (Sergei Oleksyak) wins the hand of the perky Sofya (Alla Chernykh), that he rescinds his order to send Kapnist to Siberia.

Kapnist (Alexei Shulin) spends much of the performance sleeping in a feathery bed of pillows at center stage. Occasionally, he jerks up out of his stupor as if responding to a nasty dream. And, indeed, one wonders if everything we are watching is a nightmare cooked up in Kapnist's subconscious. What is worse? The voracious bureaucrats robbing people left and right, the screechy-voiced emperor confusing art for reality or the sycophantic actors who play heartless bribe-takers but grovel at the feet of the tsar? And what about the writer himself once he realizes that he is unexpectedly back in favor? Is this dream or nightmare?

The bureaucrats -- played as a single, hydra-headed entity by the actors Alexander Pozharov, Katya Teneta, Yury Amigo and Gennady Khrapunkov -- float across the stage in a way that forces everyone to stop and wait for them every time they appear. It is a jolly quartet that even breaks into song as each of the four prepares to empty someone's pockets.

If Kapnist's intent was to mount an attack on corrupt officials, Levitin merely uses that topic as a humorous background for his own darker central theme -- the attitude toward power in Russia. After his initial appearance, Kulakov's irascible Pavel is rarely seen on stage. His shrieks and threats are hurled from a balcony where he remains out of sight above the audience. That is, at least, until the final moments when the unsuspecting spectators begin to realize that they, too, have been drawn into this theatrical game. To find out what I mean, you'll have to see the show yourself.

The clean, empty space of the thrust stage revives a set that the late David Borovsky created for an earlier work by Kim and Levitin. It works beautifully with the detailed historical costumes designed by Oksana Yarmolnik.

"Kapnist Round Trip" is not your average theater production. The pacing often seems off-kilter, and the transitions from one play to another can be rough. But that is the Levitin style. And then there's that ending that dumps everything in the spectators' lap. That is pure Levitin, too.

"Kapnist Round Trip" (Kapnist Tuda i Obratno) plays Sat. and Sun. at 7 p.m. at the Hermitage Theater, located at 3 Karetny Ryad. Metro Chekhovskaya. Tel. 650-2076, 650-6742. www.ermitazh.theatre.ru. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.