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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Earnest, Eccentric ‘Ksenia’ Ponders Cost of Piety

Golden Mask FestivalTaking on her husband’s identity, Ksenia (Yanina Lakoba) is a devout widow.

The Golden Mask Festival, offering up some of the best Russian theater from last season, is well underway. In the coming week alone, we have the opportunity to see shows by the Bolshoi Drama Theater from St. Petersburg, the Volkov Theater from Yaroslavl and the Krasny Fakel Theater from Novosibirsk, as well as several Moscow productions that are nominated for awards.

One entry that has already come and gone is “Ksenia. Story of Love” by the Alexandrinsky Theater in St. Petersburg. It is an interesting work that deserves a look back before moving on to whatever the festival brings us next.

“Ksenia” is a relatively rare instance of a contemporary play written on a historical topic. In this case, it is the tale of Ksenia Petrova, an 18th-century noblewoman who, when her husband died suddenly without receiving last rites, took to living a life of poverty and piety.

That, however, was only the beginning. For Ksenia not only renounced wealth and status, she renounced her name and her sex. Donning the clothes of her late husband, and taking his name of Andrei Fyodorovich, she became known in St. Petersburg as a meek, though irrepressible, eccentric.

Called Blessed Ksenia then and in later years, she was canonized as a saint by the Orthodox Church in 1988.

Vadim Levanov, a playwright from Tolyatti, spun this tale into a modern parable about living a life outside the bounds of social conventions. His Ksenia encounters a series of visitors on the bank of the Neva River — drunks, statesmen, aristocrats, a priest, a religious fanatic and a pair of individuals resembling, perhaps, Satan and God. Most are hostile in some way. A few are understanding.

At all times, Ksenia is alone. This is a woman who turned her entire life into an ongoing statement of faith, love and penitence and never looked to anyone but her God and herself for strength.

Levanov reveals the high cost of Ksenia’s decision through small, veiled incidents, starting with the easiest and most obvious. Two drunken hoodlums accost her on the riverbank, and one begins to force himself upon her. But it is not the threat of physical violence that truly tests this unusual woman. In fact, she is more than capable of answering aggression with her own manner of belligerence.

Far more difficult and dangerous to her is a visit from the prostitute Katya, a woman for whom Ksenia’s late husband held especial affection.

Here, all of a sudden, is a reason for Ksenia to doubt everything she has become. What if her husband was not worthy of the sacrifice she has made for him? What then does that say about her? Is her faith in God and herself enough to carry her past this blow?

Director Valery Fokin steered his production away from sentimentality every step of the way. In fact, there is something slightly cold and calculated about this show exploring the notions of love, sacrifice and faith. But it also has a clarity and directness that suits the character of Ksenia and the city in which she lived.

Fokin occasionally takes us outside the time and place of the Ksenia story, giving us a sense of the impact she had on the mentality and mythology of St. Petersburg. As Ksenia huddles by the river, busloads of modern-day tourists swarm around her, or crowds outside a prison wall in the late 1930s gather in the distance.

The performance begins with an appropriately eerie musical prologue composed by Alexander Bakshi — a howling and weeping sound that merges with the sounds of singing.

Yanina Lakoba turns in a fine, nuanced performance as Ksenia. There is something about her of a wounded bird, albeit one that utterly refuses to give in. Small and wiry in stature, Lakoba has big, round eyes that grow even larger and more expressive when they well up with tears.

The set by Alexander Borovsky makes maximum use of a large, empty stage. Towering over everything in back are white, arched walls reminiscent of a church. Separating the audience from the actors is a trough of water — a nod to the Neva — that runs from wing to wing.

If you missed “Ksenia” at the Moscow Art Theater in early March, it continues in repertory at the Alexandrinsky Theater, just a quick train ride away in St. Petersburg. It’s well worth the trip.

Golden Mask information may be obtained at www.goldenmask.ru or by telephone at (495) 755-8335.
“Ksenia. Story of Love” (Ksenia. Istoria Lyubvi) plays Sat. at 7 p.m. in St. Petersburg at the Alexandrinsky Theater, 6 Ploshchad Ostrovskogo. Metro Gostiny Dvor. Tel. (812) 380-8050. www.alexandrinsky.ru. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.