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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Unforgettable Theater

Vasilis Laggos and violinist Gidon Kremer during the curtain calls at the premiere of "The Polyphony of the World" in 2001.

Mid-September is something of a theatrical no-man’s-land in Moscow. Technically speaking, the new season has begun. Plenty of theaters are open and people are talking about the shows that soon will be premiering. But the reality is that nothing has really happened yet. Just around the bend we have big, new shows coming from Lenkom, the School of Dramatic Art, the Satirikon, the Theater Yunogo Zritelya and more. But that’s up beyond a turn in the road that we haven’t reached yet.

So, while twiddling my fingers in anticipation of the future, I got to thinking about the past.

Theater is arguably the most perishable art form. No two nights are ever the same. Last night’s show is gone and it will never be repeated. And when a show closes it is, like darling Clementine in the song, lost and gone forever. Video tapes or televised performances are poor, and usually highly deceptive, substitutes. Photographs, fascinating as the best ones are, can be every bit as misleading; a bit of random light and shadow can turn photos of the blandest show into masterworks. As for the critics and what they say — forget it! Would you trust a critic? I wouldn’t.

What is left, then, when a show is gone?


Or, to be more precise, emotional memory. What really lasts in theater is whatever had the power to make you gasp or cry or howl with laughter. I’m talking about revelations — those split seconds when a live performance actually changes your frame of mind or your point of reference, when it forces or coerces you out of one state into another. For instance, from complacency into caring; from forgetfulness into remembering; from ignorance into knowing. You may not continue to care, remember or be knowledgeable for more than a few fleeting seconds. But by then, the act of magic has happened. You now are richer than you were before.

As I was sitting and waiting this weekend for all those great Moscow theaters to get on with it and open their new shows, I decided to play a game. I opened the floodgates of my theatrical memory and let it all wash over me. I was curious to see what would come to mind, and why.

Here are a few of my most powerful memories, in no particular order.

Robert Wilson’s “The CIVIL warS” at the American Repertory Theater, Cambridge, MA, 1985. Specifically, a scene of an actor playing a child (Seth Goldstein), who bounced an inflated ball up and down for what seemed an eternity as the actor playing his father (the marvelous Ben Halley, Jr.) talked on at length and large numbers of irritated audience members headed for the exits. Wilson did in this scene what I had never seen anyone do to that point in my life — he stopped time. He caught us in a temporal warp and showed us the rhythms and inner dynamics of time interrupted. It was absolutely riveting, and I have never been the same again. Nor have I worried too much about the fickle whims of the public.

Ramaz Chkhikvadze as Azdak in Robert Sturua’s production of Bertolt Brecht’s “The Caucasian Chalk Circle” for the Rustaveli Theater of Tbilisi, Georgia, on tour in Moscow, 1994. Chkhikvadze blew onto the stage, a veritable force of nature. His entrances and exits were greeted by ovations. His performance of a song literally stopped the show as the audience burst into a prolonged ovation punctuated with repeated shouts of “Bravo!” Even now, I shrink from the task of making sense of the power this actor commanded. As he worked his art and magic, the enormous, living, breathing production that Sturua had created seemed to stop and part, as the waters might once have done for Moses. It was a performance of nonstop electric force, hairpin turns, unexpected explosions and exquisitely controlled moments of gentleness, perfectly timed pauses and raucous outbursts. For the first time, I began to realize how important it is for a great actor to work with a great director — and vice versa.

The “dead” Semyon Podsekalnikov, as played by Richard Jenkins, leaping up suddenly from his coffin in Jonas Jurasas’s production of Nikolai Erdman’s “The Suicide” at the Trinity Square Repertory Company, Providence, R.I., 1980. I don’t ever recall a theater being as hot — literally, in terms of temperature — as Trinity Square was that cold January night. It wasn’t because of a heater malfunction — it was because the audience had been laughing so hard for so long. But this tragicomedy about a bunch of creeps trying to make a loser kill himself in order to further their own selfish causes was also devastating. Never before had I seen with such clarity how vulnerable an individual is when pitted against a mob.

The cabbage-chopping scene in Kama Ginkas’s production of “We Play ‘Crime’” at the Theater Yunogo Zritelya, Moscow, 1991. The scene of Raskolnikov killing the pawnbroker in this dramatization of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” was handled in a way I could never have anticipated. The entire cast sat down at midstage and, accompanied by lively music, gaily chopped a head of lettuce into bits. When they finished they ate the salad they had made. Was this horrible? Were they eating brains? Or was it a hilarious debunking of the whole notion of murder? I still don’t know, which is one of the great lessons Ginkas’s productions have taught me — logical clarity is not all it’s cracked up to be.

I have no choice but to add another Ginkas scene, this one the moment of the birth of the Human (Vasilis Laggos) in Ginkas’ production of “The Polyphony of the World,” based on a musical composition by Alexander Bakshi, during the International Theater Olympics in Moscow in 2001. This extraordinary mystery play about the evolution of sound, man and meaning on earth may be the single greatest piece of theater I have witnessed. I could highlight any number of its astonishing scenes, but this stands alone: the moment when the boards of the stage of the Vakhtangov Theater seemed to be ripped open with a deafening crunch, a flood of light burst from beneath the stage and the fetal-shaped body of the Human was yanked into the air before being plopped back down on the boards by a tether. Astonishing. Also astonishing was the way baffled critics turned their backs on what they couldn’t understand and a timid producer walked away from a show bigger than he was. As a result, “Polyphony” was performed just twice, and I rarely have trusted critics or producers since.

The ending of Viktor Shamirov’s production of Woody Allen’s “God” at the Mossoviet Theater, 2004. On the whole, this very fine show may not match up to the great productions that precede it in this list. And yet the finale, in which a real potter, Mikhail Tukmachyov, walked out on stage, sat down at a wheel and made a clay vase from scratch, invariably comes to mind immediately whenever I think back to scenes that have been revelations for me. Shamirov essentially stopped his show of good actors playing intriguing characters in meaningful imaginary situations and turned the stage over to someone doing something real in real time — taking nothing and making something of it. Tukmachyov’s act of creation was absolutely mesmerizing. It was a powerful reminder that the stage is a place where this kind of magic may not happen every night, but every night there is a chance that it just might.