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The Costumer's Manifesto: Russian Stories: The Speechless Theatre Critic Russian Stories

The Speechless Theatre Critic

It is erroneously assumed by many, that watching dramatic performances in a language one does not fully understand is a tedious and pointless activity.Nowhere is this less true than in Russia.I myself, came to St.Petersburg originally with a group of theatre students two years ago, and although none of us could speak more than ten words of the language, all of us went to the theatre nightly and had a splendid time.There are two main reasons for this.One is that the level of acting in even the small theaters in this city is such that you can intuit much of what is being said from the acting alone, the other is that regular touring to Europe is so much a part many theatre's yearly activity, that many shows are directed in such a way that their movement and design tell most of the story.Two years after I first came here, my Russian is still too poor to comprehend the dialogue of even simple Russian plays, but I still gladly attend plays whenever I can, because only very rarely have I found one where I could not follow the plot.

A case in point is at the Maly Theatre.The Maly makes regular tours to Europe and even the U.S.While a few of their shows are unsuitable for non-Russian speakers (Dom for instance), the shows that they have taken on tour, like Lord of the FliesGaudemus, and Claustrophobia, have packed them in in Paris, where presumably the Parisians didn't curl up and die because of listening to a little Russian.On the contrary, the Paris papers went Ga-ga over Claustrophobia, just as my students went wild over Lord of the Flies, and GaudemusWhy?Because all these plays make their story points through easily comprehensible, visual/auditory means:acting, lighting, music, sound, costumes, and movement, the whole raft of reasons people go to see live plays instead of sitting home reading the script.

In Lord of the Flies, the actors swing on ropes like the lost boys they represent, chasing wild pigs, building campfires, fighting and finally murdering, all in the refuse of a broken airplane.The story is shown in the intense emotions on their faces, the tightly clumped groupings they make, their shouts and screams and weeping.While there is plenty of humor in this dark tale, there is not a vestige of childish "cuteness" to the proceedings.Adult actors play all the boys, thus rendering this serious tale about schoolboys cracking the thin veneer of civilization, even more intense.Although I had never read the book, I found little difficulty in following the plot through the projected emotions of the actors in each scene.

In Gaudemus, the set is an actor too, swallowing up the new army draftees whole into traps in the floor, romantically flying a piano into the air as a couple makes love on the keyboard, tossing musical instruments at the soldiers to help them form an impromptu band---it's as if the blank white snow-covered surface of their outpost takes on the ever changing shapes of their imagination.Gaudemus, a gritty realistic story of army life, gets a fanciful, almost operatic treatment, miles away from Lord of the FliesWhere Flies revels in it's realistic details (a live pig, actors eating raw meat, real fire), Gaudemus, follows the recruits in and out of reality, scene by scene, or even within one.A good case is when a young soldier, seeing a pretty girl washing her long hair at an ice-hole, can't resist touching it---and naturally gets frozen to her hair.This awkward first meeting is quickly transformed in his mind (and on stage) into a romantic ballet between soldiers and girls, with his girl as prima ballerina.His awkward clutch on her scalp, turns into just an innovative "hold" for their romantic pas-de-deux.The visual metaphors are endlessly entertaining, and come at you with such speed and ferocity it's like a ride at Disneyland, albeit an "R" rated one.

NOTE:"The Speechless Critic" is a non-Russian speaking Theatre critic.The plays recommended by "The Speechless Critic", are recommended for adult audiences of all languages, regardless of their ability to speak Russian.Recommended plays are those which will be largely comprehensible and interesting to those not fluent in Russian.Plays which are not recommended, are not necessarily poor productions, but rather productions which are not suitable for non-Russian speakers.If you know of a production coming up that seems suitable for non-speakers, please forward the information to The Press

When The Sun Was God, Theatre Metamorphose, ritual-performance, Script by Ludmila Krajda, Director: Olga Chernavskaya,Scene and Costume Design: Ludmila Krajda.

When The Sun Was God, is a ritual theatre piece without apparent plot, however, it doesn't need one.The performance by Yuri Maykov in the main (and nameless) role, is one part Bag-man, one part Shaman, and all parts fascinating.He is assisted by a small group of supporting candle bearers, music makers, as well as two audience members drafted to play a bride and groom.The "play" is more a series of stylized actions meant to evoke the images of pre-Christian Russian nature worship.It is rarely clear in this piece what is actually being said-there is no narrative thread, no naturalistic Method "emoting" going on here, but what is meant creeps up on the viewer through the tightly layered series of ritual actions.It's about the eco-system, and the family, about fire, and birth, and agriculture and marriage.Ultimately it tells the viewer that for Russia to heal herself as a country she must again treat the family and the earth as sacred objects, worthy of resurrection.The play, while making much use of old Russian pagan religious ritual, ends with Christian imagery, as if to imply that Christ is the final symbol of resurrection that Russians must emulate.

While this all sounds very confusing, watching it is not.It proceeds slowly but not tediously, with an agreeable orgy of sensation.Maykov beats his Shaman's drum before a bowl of fire, little girls in white pass round lit tapers to the audience, and behind a scrim a shadowed figure taps out shimmering tones on hanging pieces of brass.Between the smell of candles, sound of bells and sight of the earthy looking wooden set pieces and paintings, the theatre resembles a kind of New Age/Orthodox combination church.This is pretty standard Theatre Metamorphose territory, and what they are best at.This group is so attuned to seeking after the spiritual essence of things that several of their former number have left to join Orthodox monasteries.But the core remaining Metamorphose bunch is determinedly pantheistic:After the hour long show, performers do fortune telling by candlelight for interested audience members with a choice of I-Ching, Runes or Indian Sticks.If mixing your Christianity with Paganism, or mixing your Paganism with Christianity offends you, you are likely, not to find this show to your taste.If however the moral and theatrical message is what interests you, rather than the strictness of a particular theological form, you likely will find it as interesting and pleasant as I do myself.

The Little Mermaid, Theatre Metamorphose, children's show, adapted from the story by Hans Christian Anderson by Yuri Maykov and Olga Chernavskaya, Director/Scene Design: Yuri Maykov, Costume Design: Ludmila Krajda.

Breaking away briefly from the usual pre-Christian ritual theatre mold of most of Theatre Metamorphose's work, The Little Mermaid, is an unabashedly Christian, unquestionably childlike show intended for the whole family.Done in a minimalist, non-realistic style, the show may at first disappoint children more used to movies and cartoons of this tale, however, the deceptively simple looking scenery has several tricks up it's sleeve, that help to make for several spectacular effects by the play's finish.

Metamorphose's version of Mermaid, more closely follows the Anderson original than the well known Disney version.The story is quite basic, and is simply played out by two actors playing three parts.The Mermaid ("Russalychka") as played by Yanna Chernavskaya, is a buxom, fun loving, fish-girl, with a fishy wiggle, who saves the life and captures the heart of a cute (if not overly bright) young Prince (Konstantin Sloyev).The two play in the water and on the shore in a childlike way, and both fall into a romantic passion quite utterly devoid of any sexual connotation. The Mermaid then employs the services of the evil Sea Witch (also played by Sloyev in a series of horrific masks), to trade her fins and voice for legs and a human soul.Reunited on the shore with the Prince, who is deeply confused by the change in her, she cannot convince him without speaking that she is the Mermaid he loved.Broken hearted she returns to the sea to die.Anderson ended the story here, but the Metamorphose co. recalled that she had acquired a human soul, and so gives the story a postscript.In their version the Sea Witch is about to steal her soul as she dies, but the Mermaid, awakened from her trance by the voice of the Prince, calls on God to free her soul and let her see the Prince (on the Astral Plane) before she dies, she does and dies in his arms.The Prince, left grieving for her then sees a vision (in a spectacular special effect) of her soul ascending to heaven.The curtain call

shows them reunited in heaven after death, a happy if not-so-Disneyesque ending.

The show clocks in at about an hour, and so is well within the tolerances of a child's attention span.The subject matter and it's treatment are not such that many adults would wish to attend it without children, however the plot moves quickly, and adults who accompany children will not find themselves bored.On the very simple set, projections, fans and back lighting make for lots of good effects, most particularly the sea waves and astral plane. Although there were a few scenes I would have imagined to be scary for children, not one of the dozens of kids in the preview audience started crying---the stylized nature of the scenes helped to remind them it was only a play, and so not even tiny children seemed upset.Older children, particularly boys, probably won't like the story, but adults and kids under 10, will.

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