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UAF Fall 2005: Small Chekhov
Straigt English translation:
one file play * Gutenberg
... Stage Reading [Russian, English, Amharic] > Lul Production
Gogol’s tale tells of Aksenty Poprishchin, a faceless clerk who slowly descends into the abyss of mental illness, driven there by his loneliness, his idealism, his festering pride and his overactive imagination. We first encounter him as he returns home happily from the theater. We leave him as he is being beaten silly in an insane asylum by callous doctors intent on destroying his delusion that he is the King of Spain. I think it safe to say that Gogol was primarily interested in laying bare the funny, strangely logical and terrifying process of a man slowly but surely losing contact with reality. Fomenko and Goryachev have added to this 170 year-old story a modern twist – the distinct impression that Poprishchin’s illness is a form of self-defense against a cruel and stupid world. In this context, we see Poprishchin’s madness as a form of creativity and self-expression, something as much to be admired and cherished as lamented.
All of the characters in Gogol’s story – the hated general who runs the department in which Poprishchin is employed, his flirtatious daughter whom Poprishchin loves and an array of others real and imagined, including the annoying little dogs whose love letters he intercepts – are “played” by Goryachev-Poprishchin himself. As we are accustomed to expect in a Fomenko show, the smallest of objects are acquire significance: a handkerchief that is kept afloat in the air by the actor waving his hand at it; frilly, feathered hats that become animate when manipulated by the actor; floppy gloves transformed into a general’s epaulets; a bed board becoming the bars of a locked asylum cell.
Stanislav Morozov’s set features the items that dominate Poprishchin’s world – his bed, his writing instruments, stairs leading to an unspecified place of ominous authority, whether that is the office of Poprishchin’s boss or the realm of some being of a higher nature. A luminous likeness of Gogol stands in back as if he, too, has been hounded into a corner.
Goryachev is weakest when indulging in sentimental portrayals of a man needing sympathy and best when going on the offensive and unquestioningly claiming his character’s right to be himself, no matter what the consequences. [ Pre-publication version of a review that will be published in The Moscow Times Oct. 8, 2004. Any and all quotations of, or references to, this article must cite John Freedman. ]Finalelul.sellassie.infoMAYOR (slapping his own face): How could I?! My brains must gone soft with this new political age! Years of my Soviet service, and not a single bureaucrat, inspector or contractor put one over on me. I've cheated the cheats and swindled the swindlers. Thieves and frauds willing to steal from their own mothers fell into my clutches. Three party bosses in a row - I hoodwinked every one of them!
ANNA: I just can't believe it, darling. He's engaged to our Mary.
MAYOR: Engaged! Engaged! Stuff your engagement! (In a frenzy) Look at me, all look at me, I want the whole world, every nation, to look at me! See what a fool the mayor has been made! (Shakes his fist at himself) Oh you idiot! Taking that jerk, that worm, for a VIP! And now he is in the air, laughing and spreading the story everywhere. He'll turn you into the laughingstock of the whole world! What's worse - some scribbler will stick you into a comedy! That's hurts. And they'll all grin and clap. (To the audience) What are you laughing at? You, you're laughing at yourself! Ooooh! You sniveling liberals! Devil's seed! I'd tie you all in a knot, pound you all to a jelly and kick you down to hell! (Strikes out with his fist) What was there about that scatterbrain to make us take him for an investor? Nothing! Not that much! And yet everyone was suddenly yapping, "It's the millionaire! The investor! Inspector!" Who started the rumor? Who?
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TOPICS: drama + comedy + postmodern + american age + self + future + others +Pre-publication version of a review that will be published in The Moscow Times Oct. 15, 2004. Any and all quotations of, or references to, this article must cite John Freedman. © 2004 John Freedman. The final version will be available (with accompanying photos) on Friday in the Context section of The Moscow Times at www.themoscowtimes.com/context ------------------------------- By John Freedman A new dramatization of Nikolai Gogol’s story “The Overcoat,” created by director Valery Fokin in collaboration with the composer Alexander Bakshi, gives us reason to step back and gain perspective on one of Moscow’s most inventive and fruitful creative teams in the last decade. Fokin and Bakshi first joined forces 14 years ago on “A Woman Possessed,” an adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot*.” But their partnership gelled in 1992 on a musical/dramatic project called “The Sidur Mystery” where the artwork and workshop space of the sculptor Vadim Sidur were brought to life in strange and suggestive ways by musician-actors. In the years and some 15 shows that have followed, Fokin and Bakshi have continued exploring the uncharted territory that separates the disciplines of music and dramatic theater. Fokin has cultivated a special interest in the unorthodox use of space, while Bakshi, who over the years has evolved a genre he calls the theater of sound, has gone so far at his most extreme as to take over the position of the playwright, using sounds and music in place of words. The most famous of their joint projects have been “A Hotel Room in the Town of N,” a 1994 adaptation of Gogol’s novel “Dead Souls,” and Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” in 1995. Both shows experimented with minimizing the use of text and maximizing the importance of other communicative elements in connection with the intangible but very real impact of sound. After the director and composer collaborated on a curiosity – the 1998 world premiere of the “forgotten” Anton Chekhov one-act play “Tatyana Repina” – they more or less parted ways. Fokin went on to open up the physical plant of his Meyerhold Center on Novoslobodskaya Ulitsa and take over the artistic directorship of the Alexandrinsky Theater in St. Petersburg. Bakshi teamed up with the director Kama Ginkas and violinist Gidon Kremer to create the stunning musical mystery “The Polyphony of the World” in 2001, and, with the pianist Alexei Lyubimov and puppet and shadow theater director Ilya Epelbaum, he produced the haunting “From the Red Book of Extinction” in 2003. “The Overcoat,” then, mounted jointly by the Sovremennik Theater and the Meyerhold Center, is a reunion of sorts. Not only does it bring Fokin and Bakshi back together, it reunites Fokin with the Sovremennik, the house in which he began his professional career 34 years ago. Moreover, it would appear to be the starting point for a new period of active collaborations. Fokin and Bakshi are already working on multiple projects soon to be performed at the Alexandrinsky. Gogol’s tale about a hyperbolically meek clerk is arguably one of the most influential short stories in all of Russian literature. It has been eulogized, interpreted, imitated and parodied by countless artists of various genres since its publication in 1842. To this day the arguments echo – did Gogol create a compassionate image of a “little man” who is done in tragically when he resolves to replace his threadbare overcoat with a fancy new one, or did he create a literary joke that sends up sentimentalism in a pungent linguistic stew? Fokin’s production takes the optimal tack; it actually moves in both directions at once. This is a thoughtful, serious work, sometimes even somber, which is broken up from time to time with raucous humor. One of Fokin’s shrewdest moves was to cast Marina Neyolova in the role of the clerk Bashmachkin. Neyolova, the Sovremennik’s leading actress, is changed beyond recognition by make-up artist Tatyana Shmykova. Beneath a wig of scraggly hair, hiding behind layers of facial make-up and dwarfed by an oversized clerk’s uniform designed by Alexander Borovsky, Neyolova looks twice as small and four times older than she is. It is an amazing transformation made even more effective because she never attempts to “play a man.” Her Bashmachkin is an essence, neither male nor female, but something beyond – a kind of mythical creature representing timidity and conformity. It goes without saying that this odd being ultimately must pay the price for attempting, in a moment of weakness and misguided hubris, to break the rules that control its existence. In this brief show that runs under an hour, Fokin has almost entirely done away with events. The tiny Bashmachkin emerges from a huge, freestanding overcoat at center stage and runs to work where he copies documents with his scratchy quill. When he notices a hole in the sleeve of his coat it falls over like a dead body. He dreams of a beautiful new coat that seduces him as if it were a woman, but when the coat becomes real, it is stolen and Bashmachkin is crushed. But this is not a tale about a coat, a clerk, or the callous people he encounters. It is a meditation or, perhaps, a nightmare, on the fragility of human life and the temptations that can ravage it. The slightest slip or the silliest desire can obliterate it utterly. The tiny Bashmachkin here emerges as a kind of figure from Greek tragedy, a hero challenged by the gods to be more than he is, who fails miserably yet achieves immortality in the tale of his failure. The show begins with the disorienting cinematic vision of swirling white snowflakes being projected on a semi-transparent back wall. Bakshi’s sounds of muted silence resound in our ears as the blizzard continues, finally adding the howls of wind. Bashmachkin exists in an everchanging sonic space, at times defined by the humming, soaring voices of the Sirin vocal ensemble whose members traverse a balcony behind the spectators, at times by the sounds Bashmachkin himself makes or encounters – such as the menacing clatter of a sewing machine when he learns his old coat must be replaced by a new one. Bashmachkin occasionally utters the text of Gogol’s story under his breath, but it isn’t so much the words that carry meaning here, as it is the chirping or alarmed or depressed intonation given to them by Neyolova. The story’s finale – Gogol’s narrator’s suggestion that ghosts and apparitions were involved in the disappearance of Bashmachkin’s overcoat – is delivered by a voice that emanates from behind the spectators in a solemn chant reminiscent of a Russian Orthodox church service. Fokin, with designer Borovsky, cut the performance space into various planes. The stage is completely empty but for the two overcoats that move around it and a small step stool that serves as Bashmachkin’s work place. The partition at the back does not hide the deep back corners of space behind it, allowing us glimpses of theater machinery and people moving around and doing their jobs, while panels on the partition itself occasionally open up and slam shut like doors or windows. At times the partition becomes a kind of cinema screen when lively shadow shows staged by Epelbaum are cast upon it by hand-held spot lights manipulated backstage. Fokin’s minimalist direction, Bakshi’s understated soundscape and Neyolova’s refined performance centered on the tiniest of smiles and minutest of gestures have brought us a jewel of subtlety and finesse. ***”The Overcoat” (Shinel), a production of the Sovremennik Theater and the Meyerhold Center, plays Nov. 1 and 2 at 7:30 p.m. on the Sovremennik Theater Drugaya Stsena, Chistoprudny Bulvar 19a. Metro Chistiye Prudy. Tel. 921-6473. Running time: 1 hour.***
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