I interrupt my coverage of Russian theatre to cover this show I saw in Colorado a day after my return to the States. This show is currently at the Winnipeg Fringe Festival. I don’t know who reads this blog, but if it gets any traffic from international theatre festival fans who will be attending the Winnipeg Fringe, I want to make sure they know about this production!
One of my friends from high school has joined up with this ensemble of university theatre students from all different universities, who unite each summer in Colorado to make new work that they first present in Colorado and then bring around the country and the world. Their production this year is an exploration on “unprovoked’ violence in a civilized world” (i.e. Sandy Hook, Columbine, Virgina Tech, etc.) through the journey of the perpetrator. It challenges us to examine what can trigger a young person to wreak violence on himself and others; to try and understand what goes on in the mind of a killer before we write them off as evil.
It was a provocative, experimental, and raw production, visually striking while full of compassion and heart. You can read more about it below!
Who did the show? When? Where?
A group called Unexpected Laboratory did the show, at the Dairy Arts Center in Boulder, CO on June 28th, 2014. They also performed the show in Chicago July 10th-12th and started performing the show at The Winnipeg Fringe Festival in Canada starting July 16th. Their mission? To present unexpected theatre (experimental and through multiple artistic mediums) internationally-
“Through travel and development of new performance techniques we will present innovative art and discoveries that thrive at the intersection of multiple forms of expression. We provide a taste of adventure and curiosity to our audience and collaborators.” (from the Unexpected Lab website, http://theunexpectedlab.org/ )
Brief Summary of the Show.
The main character is a kid with a backpack and a baseball cap. In his backpack is a gun, represented by the hand of the actor making two fingers and a fist. The backpack and baseball cap are passed from actor to actor throughout the production, so that the life of the main character exists in multiple different shapes, races, and genders. Using research from multiple different school shooting cases, as well as their own innate knowledge of what its like to be a young person facing the pressures of modern society, the ensemble creates the journey of a young shooter; starting with his initial insecurities and trying to fit in, to his tunnel-vision turn of choosing violence, the following regret, and a final scene calling for us to reach out to one another. I’ve got some more detailed descriptions of different scenes below. The order of the scenes may vary slightly from the production, as I am writing this from memory.
The set is 4 transportable walls the size of doorways that are covered in peeling plastic. Images are projected on these walls through out the show- most notably images of people’s faces taken from a phone-sized camera, warped by the plastic and the tiny camera.
The play opens with members of the cast wrapped tightly in cellophane and struggling to break free. They surround the main character. Once the cast does break free, they exit off of the stage and the main character confronts a “wolf-in sheep’s-clothing” – an actor wearing a wolf costume with a sheep’s costume on top of it. The wolf in sheep’s clothing talks into a microphone that echoes across the space, challenging the main character. The main character blurts out “I’m 22 years old and still a virgin, never even kissed a girl” (a line straight from Eliot Rodger’s – the UCSB shooter’s- manifesto) as the wolf tortures him with the idea of “desire” (the word projected on the back walls.)
The main character continues on in his dark angst and runs into some people who do a perfectly happy and bright staged musical dance number, pulling him into the dance. He sees wobbly faces of his parents on the screens, telling him to perform perfectly. The main character goes on to a “family dinner” where his family is eating in a perfectly timed and over exaggerated mimed manner. He struggles to keep up, becoming a laughing target for the others.
The main character switches to a girl actor, and she becomes completely limp, her body manipulated and positioned by the other people in the ensemble in a sort of dance, until she is put into a large dog cage. The lights change and the setting becomes a testing environment- testing the limits of the main character. The ensemble, in lab coats, insults the main character with different “levels” of insults (level 1 being geek, dork and level 2 being c***, b*****, etc.) – coolly observing her reactions as she tries to break out of the cage and get them to stop. The ensemble give her impossible commands, like to reach her “reward” (a spoonful of peanut butter) as it is placed out of range of the cage. Eventually, she is exhausted and collapses. Her body is removed and she passes on the cap and backpack to another male ensemble member.
The main character is put on a surgery table where he is transformed into “the ideal man.” The cast does “work” on his body and face, until he comes up shirtless with band-aids over his eyes and tape over his mouth, replacement facial features drawn over them.
He rips off the band-aids and tape with a masculine growl, and goes to a frat party where he communicates with the other ensemble members in animalistic growls and grunts, lights flashing and wild party music behind him. Some one throws a teddy bear on the ground, and the main character starts beating it up, using body slams and punches. Everyone cheers until the main character goes to his backpack and pulls out the gun to use against the teddy bear. Everyone gets scared and leaves.
The main character makes the turn, talking to himself in dark lighting; he decides to kill them all. The lights change to a pink color and the music changes to springtime classical. Everyone returns onstage for a graceful ballet sequence, where, in a ballet dance, the main character glides lightheartedly from person to person, shooting them in the head with his gun-hand so that they fall dead to the floor. He continues on like this until every person is dead.
Then, coming out of his trance, the main character tries to wake the people he has just killed and bring them back up. The victims remain dead, and, realizing what he is done, the main character is overwhelmed with regret. The screens fall, the projections and the music stop, and the actor playing the main character passes on the baseball cap and backpack to the same actor who had them at the beginning.
The main character sits upstage, under a spotlight, with a microphone. Simply and honestly, he tells a story from childhood; where he was humiliated and beaten up for wetting his pants in a game of capture the flag. In front of him, the ensemble creates a mass moving pile- a community- pulling in one another, shielding and comforting one another, until the main character finishes the story, abandons his hat and backpack, and joins them. End of play.
What stood out to you about this production?
-The use of basic materials to create stunning imagery
-The bandages over the eyes
-People on the floor wrapped in cellophane.
-The wobbly faces projected on the shredded plastic walls
-Sound effects made by voices- in the dinner scene, one actor (a Vocal Foley artist) stood by a microphone and accompanied the eating with sounds of munching and chewing. In the Frat Party scene, words weren’t used but the growls, grunts, and gasps used instead created an effective atmosphere. In the ballet scene, the main character made humming musical sounds instead of speech as he shot everyone, creating a different atmosphere.
-The variation in lighting and sound to create the several different worlds the main character journeyed through made for a layered piece. The contrast of the rose-lighting and ballet music in the shooting scene highlighted the climax by suddenly going to a graceful, suspended atmosphere rather than just increasing the sound and speed. The simple spotlight upstage center for the last piece worked to isolate the text and the actor speaking so that we could see vividly his story even as, for the first time in the play, there were no projections, colored lighting, or surround sound.
-The way the ensemble worked together in the movement sequences- particularly in the scene where the girl was limp putty to her fellow ensemble and in the final scene where the cast created a moving supportive community. You could tell there was a lot of trust and physical listening working in the ensemble.
What have you learned that you will be able to apply to your artistry?
What I have learned most is not actually from the show itself but from the talkback after the show and my research into the theatre company.
-In the talkback, the director mentioned one of the methods the group used to brainstorm ideas; everybody drew a picture of a scene/image for the show and put it in the middle. This was where the idea for the wolf in sheep’s clothing was born.
In the “documentaries” on the companies website, you can watch 5-6 minute videos covering the process of the production. Documentary 2 is particularly inspiring- it covers the creation of the production, revealing wisdom on collaboration in the process. This quote from director Joe Hill stuck out to me:
“One of the most important parts of directing is just the care you take for the specific group. I work really hard to keep people in my company safe, to make sure that, you know, if you’re creating something, if you’re bringing yourself to the work, if you’re expressing yourself, or if you’re taking a risk, you don’t feel unsupported.”
Overall, it is wonderful to see a group of university students from all different universities collaborating together in such an effective and original manner to create important and new work. Go fly to Winnipeg and check out their show! Or at least, visit their website and watch their documentaries.
My apologies for not keeping up with this blog more (and thank you for following, if you are!) I have been back from Russia for over two weeks. I have pages of notes on shows and experiences, as well as several interviews and theatre programs to translate, and my job now is to focus on organizing it all so that I can report it to you in an engaging and accessible manner (and to organize it for myself, as I will be writing a research paper on the experience this fall!)
Part of the reason I have procrastinated on this (other than hot summer days and a book calling my name), is that I am overwhelmed by the enormity and yet incompleteness of my experience. I feel like I went to Russia, saw a bunch, learned a bunch, improved my Russian, and came back brilliantly aware of how little I know.
“The greatest wisdom is to realize one’s lack of it” -Stanislavski (by the way, I walked through his old apartment and it was the coolest thing ever! He had a small bed where he worked on his final books in his sick old age, a small study where he taught his acting students – using a bookshelf for a classroom divider -and a tiny theatre made in the living room where he and his friends would experiment.)
Understanding Russia and Russian theatre is a lifetime endeavor. Understanding theatre is an endless endeavor. Understanding countries, nationalism, war, history, human rights; it will never end.
I am compelled to try still, though.
Because what studying in Russia has taught me, most of all, is that I am lucky for having been taught tolerance and compassion – and that I must work to spread these values. I was raised in an environment that values equality and human rights for all- and I don’t necessarily mean the United States. The inequalities, intolerance, and human rights violations I witnessed in Russia actually made me reflect upon how much work is yet to be done here, in the hearts of Americans, to create the necessary tolerance and empathy between people who are different. What I mean is the environment of theatre; being raised in my arts middle and high school and now in arts college, where I was and am challenged everyday to see life from a perspective that is different from my own.
The corruption, ignorance, and human rights violations I saw and read about in Russia were disheartening, but I was inspired and kept hopeful by the Russian theatre’s role in rebelling against these things. Even if it meant the play would break the law, procuring a fine and angry audience members, the artists still said what they wanted to and needed to say (the anti-gay propaganda law, the no-profanity onstage law, and the no smoking in public places law were all broken in the live performances I experienced, and it sometimes caused quite a stir in the audience).
There was also some theatre that left me disturbed because it did comply with racist, misogynistic, and/or homophobic mores that I experienced in Russia (honestly, mores that are not too different from some of what I witness in the fraternity life at SMU in Dallas, Texas). However, this theatre was important for me to see as well, because I realized that I must try and do theatre that is in the former category (noble and true, if risky and provocative) rather than the latter (popular and unchallenging, encouraging the accepted if limited mindset.)
Art has a great responsibility. It can either provoke a society to question itself and move forward or help a society stay in its mistakes by giving it self-satisfaction.
Moscow triple-inspired me to devote my life to theatre (and I did need some extra inspiration, as I’m coming upon my senior year of University and the reality of having to support myself and pay off loans is not too far away.)
Yes, I need theatre for myself, because of its outlets for imagination and outlets for emotion, because I am, by nature, someone who has a lot to say and wants it all to be heard, someone who craves connection with humanity (ensembles, audiences, and characters), someone who loves music, movement, language, art, and new worlds.
But I also am very passionate that we all stop other-ing one another. That we all learn to forgive one another, to learn to see from each other’s perspectives – to UNITE instead of finding so many reasons to separate from one another, to be scared of one another, and to control one another.
It is a big idealistic dream, this dream of equality and community. It may never be achieved. I get scared, sometimes. I will be overwhelmed and consequently lazy (just like I have in procrasitnating on the writing of this blog).
But none the less. Whether it is possible or not. I want to devote my life and death to seeing peace realized- now even more so after coming back from Moscow where other-ing and corruption was more overt than in my home community (though, it certainly is in large existence in the U.S. too.)
Studying languages helps (the more we can communicate with people from other nations, the less they seem so different)- but theatre is the ultimate communicator and translator. It transcends spoken language with musically embodied, visually embodied, physically embodied, and spiritually embodied language.
When used truthfully and bravely, theatre is the ultimate teacher of compassion and tolerence- the ultimate ignorance-buster. And theatre is live, keeping us real and human and instant with one another. Most of all, when theatre is good, it is fun, and people want to see it. What a dream it would be if theatre was as accessible, provacotive, and important in the whole world as it is in Russia, in the U.K., and in France! What a dream it would be if not just city dwellers, but people in all rural and underdeveloped areas has access to this people’s art, and used it to challenge and improve their own life circumstances! I’m getting carried away. I am inspired. I am encouraged. I am driven to make a future of this craft.
So, that’s how I personally benefitted from this trip. Now the rest of what I write will be for the project. Below will be the rest of my “socio-political observations.” To come after that, posts with Moscow show breakdowns and how they reflect Russian society.
THE LAST OF THE SOCIO-POLITICAL OBSERVATIONS
I just want to say, however bleak the following may make Russia seem, this is just the worst of it. Russian art and architechture is stupendous, her people are warm and fascinating, and her soul runs deep, so deep you’ll feel your own soul expanded visiting any museum, or even just standing under one of her monuments. Plus, the parks are MESMERIZING- HUGE forests where everything is so very VERY greeeeen. The ICE CREAM is inexpensive and AMAZING. And Georgian cuisine (the BEST cuisine) is abundant, as well as little stands that sell unbelievably good Russian pastries. Needless to say, the theatre is A+++++++++++++++++++++++. Visit, if you get the chance.
The below are experiences that both I and my roommate Johna had with Russians. They are living breathing reflections of some of the articles about Russia that I found from english-language Russian newspapers (The Moscow Times and RT are my main sources. As I improve my Russian, now and over the following semester, I will work at tackling Russian-language newspapers.)
1. Kostya- the young man from the phone store
My friend Johna is super beautiful and when she went to get her Russian phone, she was helped by a super cute young Russian guy who then texted her after she left (sneaky sneaky- he had her number because he gave her the phone). They never met again, but they developed a texting relationship to practice language skills – him for English, her for Russian. She texted him to ask him what he thought of Russia. These were his responses:
The photo on the left says: “Children receive from government 300 rubles a month. Pensions are 5-6 thousand rubles. Salary in small towns is 5-7 thousand a month. I spend 5-6 thousand in a week. It’s only money. If you want to know our people better, stop by in any public toilet.”
The photo on the right has pictures from the film The Fifth Element, mixed in with the word “Russia”. It says: “Governmental Legislation, prices and quality of life horrify me (I want to live in a civilized country)”
To give some perspective, 5-6 thousand rubles is about $145 dollars. In Moscow, a non-alchoholic drink at a restaurant is usually 6 to 7 dollars. A two-bedroom apartment in the city centre is 6,500$ dollars a month (1). Kostya complains about working sun-up to sun-down- and one of the reasons he and Johna never met was that he was always working.
2. The beggar in the Blinni place
19 years ago, my Mom, Dad, and I lived in Moscow for 6 months because my Dad was working with a company there. I don’t remember it, of course, because I was 2, but my mom remembers there being beggars everywhere; in the metro, on the main streets, etc. I did not see very many beggars, and when I did see them, they were only on the steps of churches. This is probably due to some legislation passed in 2004 that outlaws beggars and homeless people from the metro stations (2) (and, though I couldn’t find any evidence of it online, it could be also due to legislation/police action against homeless and beggars in public streets and parks as well.)
However, once when we were eating in a super cheap Blinni (russian pancake) place, an elderly physically disabled woman hobbled in on a cane, walked straight to our table (as we were the table nearest to her), and asked for a borsch and tea. Growing up in Denver (which has a considerable homeless population), I am used to seeing homeless people with signs on the streets – but never has anyone walked in and asked me to purchase a meal for them. I bought her the cheap meal, she exhaustedly plopped down at another table, ate, and then hobbled back out as I held the door for her and she lauded me with speedy Russian (Johnna told me she was blessing me). I was disturbed by the fact that there wasn’t care for this woman- who didn’t seem to have a problem with alcohol (she asked for food) and was not in a state to care for herself (she was very elderly and had trouble walking.) According to Kostya, pension funds are already too low in Russia- but the Russian Finance Ministry plans to liberate these locked funds for “investment into the economy” (2). According to the Moscow times, if the money is invested into worthwhile things ,“such as government securities or bank bonds“, then the investment could boost the economy. If the money is invested into “massive and financially risky government projects such as the Sochi olympics“, then there could be social disaster. It is not specified where the funds will be invested.
3. Smoking laws
On June 1st, the toughest part of Russia’s new ban on smoking set into affect- making it illegal for people to smoke in restaurants, cafés, trains, and inside any buildings- even on some public streets and terraces- as well as outlawing any special rooms in restaurants, trains, etc. reserved for smokers (4). The law is unpopular among smokers and restaurant owners (it even sparked a “smoker’s rights” movement (5) ) but none the less, signs popped up everywhere:
4. The conservatives in our dorm building
One night, we were out on the balcony of our dormitory (14th floor) speaking in English when some Russian students climbed down from their balcony (15th floor) via escape ladder and insisted we speak Russian with them because we were there to practice/learn Russian. We ended up spending the rest of the night with them, covering some of the following in a mixture of English and Russian:
- When we got to talking, the student who invited us said “this is what it’s supposed to be, we should talk, not fight with America against Russia and Russia against America“.
- When asked whether he liked the American government, one of the students said “No, because too many secrets.” When asked whether he liked the Russian government, he said “Yes, because see, I am a conservative. I believe we are made to have despot- that is what is the Russian mentality – maybe in 30 years, we will be ready for democracy, but not now.”
- Two of the students had studied abroad- one of them in New York. He talked about being disturbed when he accidentally went to a gay club for his first New York club experience – “It was weird for me, see, because that is not in our mentality.” He laughed and shook out his head with disgust.
They used the English word “mentality” a lot in reference to their own mindsets. I asked them what it is in Russian, “mentalatiet”.
5. Students from dorm building Part 2
The next day, one of the students we met the night before (who has a crush on Johna) asked if he and his roommate could go to the grocery store and eat dinner with us, and we said yes (another adventure in speaking broken Russian!) On the way back from the store, they asked us what tolerance was like in America. I broke my Russian and used English to explain that I thought, in American people’s minds, racisms, sexisms, etc. still existed and appeared deeply rooted in our society, etc. but that, in the eyes of the law, America is making its way towards equality- with laws already in place protecting minorities in the workplace and more and more states allowing gay people the right to marriage. The first student was shocked at this “wait- gay people get married?” and he laughed, shook his head out in disgust. However, his roommate was not surprised, and nodded reasonably. He was the first Russian person I’ve met who didn’t express intolerance for gay people. I then asked the roommate what he thought about tolerance in Russia. He answered me in Russian (I should have asked him to clarify in English, but I didn’t) – still I understood the first sentence, “lludi b Rocci ne ochen tolerantniye” (“People in Russia are not very tolerant”) and afterwards as he repeated the word “zakon” (which means law) and “zachonchit” (which means finish.)
Later, Johna went up to visit the student’s in their dorm and practice Russian. I retreated to write and sleep- but Johna came back with the following:
-The first guy kept asking about Los Angeles: if she had been, what it was like, etc. Then said that he heard there were too many n****** in Los Angeles. At Johna’s shocked reaction to this white boy’s use of the word, the first guy said, “no, it’s okay for us to say that here.” The roommate entered at this point, and the first guy said (about his roommate), “oh he’s too tolerent.” Johna asked what he meant by that and the first guy said “he likes everybody”. The first guy continued to say that he didn’t like black people, that all black people were gangsters and poor- and at Johna’s reactions, he asked “well, don’t they have their own language?” (I guess he was referring to ebonics). Johna corrected him, with help from the roommate, saying that gangsters, ebonics, etc. were not unique to black people: that they were results of a socioeconomic environment, not a race. The first guy was very interested in American Rap and Hip-Hop- and was surprised that Johna didn’t know more Russian music artists. The first guy also expressed a great desire to make a lot of money- and he kept asking Johna about people’s posessions in America- like “does everybody have an iphone” or “does everyone have a nice car?”
On a side note, I can count the number of black people I saw during my month in Moscow on two hands (and I saw a lot of people everyday.) With a neo-nazi movement that gained momentum in the mid nineties (6) , Russia (outside of Moscow, which actually sees less racism than in the smaller cities) is listed as one of the most dangerous places for black people to visit due to skinhead violence (7). Also, considering the large amount of people I saw in Moscow who were more Asian-looking than European- looking, I did not see any advertisement in Moscow featuring models that were not european-looking. The neo-nazi violence extends to people of asian-descent. One of the boys we hung out with on the first night was from east Russia and had a more Asian appearance- at one point, one of his friends made an asian joke about him- but at the annoyed expression on his face, the friend came back with, “hey, I love you, I love you man, we friends”
-Johna also found out that Moscow State University (MGU- where these students attend) is the largest and most expensive university at $8000 dollars a year. It is considered the best univsersity in Russia
6. Final outing with my Dad’s friend: Police and Government corruption
-My dad’s friend complained about police everywhere. He said the amount of police present in Moscow has skyrocketed, and that police thrive off of bribes instead of helping the people (he complained about this with the government as well “The police, government, it’s all for themselves, they’re not interested in us”)
<< Some of the many police I saw around Moscow. They traveled in groups and they were everywhere; in parks, in metro stations, on busy streets. There were not nearly as many police in St.Petersburg. St. Petersburg operates as federal city- meaning it governs itself as county and city. Petersburg was a tourist haven, a quiet getaway after the scream of Moscow: the metro being more clean and spacious, the food prices cheaper, and even euro prices as oppossed to rouble prices listed in some of the stores.
7. The Ukrainians in the Hermitage
In the Hermitage, I met a gregarious young woman from Ukraine, who is majoring in philology (English and German). She spoke excellent english and whirled me around the Hermitage, taking lots of photos of the art work with her Ipad and talking to me about art (“I think art should show our ideal, there’s enough bad things in reality” ), religion (“Looking at all the paintings of bible stories, that’s how I got interested in Christianity”), and the war in Ukraine (“It makes me very sad that we are fighting, but oh well, life goes on and you can’t control everything”).
Afterwards we met up with her mother, who also speaks some english, and she talked to me about the war in Ukraine as well. She explained that a bomb had gone off in their town and everything shut down for a week after; schools,workplaces, grocery stores. She also told me that she believes the war in Ukraine is at the fault of Obama and the American Government: that the American government is funding the anti-Russian side in the hopes of severing Ukraine from Russian oil so that Ukraine is dependent on American oil and resources. This was on June 17th, when an important gas pipeline that transports oil from Russia to Europe exploded in Ukraine (8). With the reason for the explosion being unknown at the time, the mother said it was a secret terrorist act committed by the Obama administration, in the hopes of diminishing the access of Ukraine and Europe to Russian oil (so that Ukraine and Europe would have to buy oil from the U.S.) “I do not like Obama” she said, with wide, frightened, and intent eyes, “I call him Crazy Black Man… I don’t hate Americans, but I hate American Government, too many secrets” (After hearing from so many eastern-europeans about the secrecy in the American government, I came back a little skeptical myself) “I can’t do anything about it- but you can. Go home. Make peace.”
I facebook friended the young woman after our encounter. A lot of eastern europeans don’t use facebook, they use a different social media website called VK (which is reportedly under “under the complete control of two oligarchs with close ties to President Vladimir Putin.” (9) ), however if they do have a facebook, it’s so they can connect with international friends- thus many of their facebook posts will be in English. The young woman posted this status 5 days before we met; “Dear friends! I am in Piter now. Everything is OK. Pray for Ukraine” . She and her mother were in Petersburg, staying with a friend, but they weren’t sure when they were going to return. It all depended on how the violence developed back home. I met 2 other Ukrainians while I was there- the first did not respond when I asked him his opinion about the war (either I was too timid or incorrect with my Russian, or he chose to ignore the question) and the second was a drunk guy in the streets, who, after hearing our group speak English, came up to walk with us and speak to us in broken English mixed with Russian. After finding out where we were from, he said, slurringly with wide, intent eyes like the mother I met at the Hermitage, “I am from Ukraine. Did you know? There is Voyna (which is the Russian word for war.)”
Meeting the woman in the Hermitage was a wake-up call for me. You forget, hearing about war in the news, how the individual lives of people are being impacted. I did not see any theatre or art that reflected or talked about the Russian situation with Ukraine. My father’s friend, however, complained about Russian involvement in Ukraine when I was with him, “it’s too expensive, he said, “we lose money from the European and American sanctions and we can’t afford it. The government needs to invest in fixing Russia.” Well, since I have left Russia, Putin must have thought the same thing;
“The Ukrainian military has overcome deficiencies in equipment, training, strategy and morale, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has refrained from launching a full-scale invasion across the Ukrainian border to rescue the rebellion he helped kindle.” (10)
My show breakdowns will vary slightly for this project, since I am discovering connections between the shows and my sociopolitical observations in Russia. As follows:
Who did the show? When, where?
I saw the performance on Monday, May 26th 2014 at Theatre Lenkom. Built in 1907, Theatre Lenkom became the “Theatre for the Working Youth” in 1927 and has been a leader in new and experimental theatre ever since*.
Brief summary/context of the show (based off of my experience and aided by further research)***
The play opens with Jester Balakirev hiding away from the army, because he wasn’t respected as a soldier. When Balakirev’s commander finds him and tries to bring him back, the Tzar Peter the Great appears. Balakirev acts like a Jester to please Peter. Peter wants Balakirev to play him and his men some music, but Balakirev says he can’t play any instruments. The Tzar is charmed by Balakirev’s goofy ways none the less and takes him on as his own companion/jester. Balakirev is spared from returning to the army. Through out the rest of play, people try and get Balakirev to play an instrument, but he continues to refuse.
Next, we are introduced to the “it girl” – Peter’s wife, Catherine 1st. We discover she is having an affair with someone who works for the court and that Peter doesn’t know. We also witness Peter’s ravishing affection for his wife.
The next scene is in a painting warehouse owned by an older woman. Two characters enter- a friend to the owner of the warehouse and her daughter- a lovely devyshka who needs to be married off. It is announced that Peter and Catherine will be coming to the warehouse and the devyshka and her mother exit to go change into better clothes. Peter and Catherine enter with Balakirev- they are looking for a wife for him. The devyshka is introduced as a wife for Balakirev and everyone marvels at her beauty- however, she gets so nervous/excited upon meeting Balakirev that she cannot speak- she just winds up screaming and running into her mothers’ arms. Everything is interrupted with the entrance of Catherine’s lover. Catherine’s lover stands and declares his love publicly in a poem. Catherine pretends she doesn’t know him and he leaves- but it’s too late- Peter is thrown into a life-threatening doubt. Suddenly the entire mood of the stage changes- lights change, everyone goes silent, except Peter, who goes into an existential rant that renders him unconscious (he has not been well, and has been collapsing from pain when he gets too excited). Everyone else leaves the stage except Catherine. When Peter awakes, he is alone with Catherine and they get into an animated fight – causing Catherine to cry and Peter to die. The lights change, the stage floor shifts to become a wall, and we are in the afterlife. Peter is there and Balakirev finds him ranting- Peter talks to Balakirev, telling him to go back into the corporeal world and to tell them this:
(he says it in English) “It’s impossible become a clever king and be not crazy.” (This is the only English line in the play and its repeated twice again at the end.) Balakirev sneaks behind the wall to the stage. Intermission.
After intermission, the floor of the stage is contorted and we have entered a world where the corporeal is blending with dreams. Balakirev slides in wearing a nightdress. Relics of his past (an old friend, a woman with a baby) and realities of his present (a child soldier, a burlesque woman) come in and interact with him one after the other, flowing as if in a dream. The floor of the stage becomes flat again as Catherine enters as Tsar- she wears loose mens’ clothes, carries a bottle of whisky and drunkenly commands an army of reluctant women. Meeting Balakirev, she decides to have him murdered for crimes associated with Peter. The devyshka breaks from the army and throws her arms around him- begging for a second chance at his life. Balakirev is then given a chance to defend himself and he says, in English, “It’s impossible become a clever king and be not crazy.” Everyone is confused, saying they can’t understand it, it’s in English. Balakirev repeats it, in English, to no avail. The scene changes, and Balakirev finds himself in a throne room, left alone for Catherine to deal with. But rather than kill him, Catherine gives him a flute and asks him to play. Peter walks onstage and comes behind Catherine, to bring her into his world of the afterlife. Balakirev plays the flute. Catherine and Peter walk away to the music- at first Balakirev sputters and Catherine and Peter freeze- only moving when the music plays. Finally, Balakirev plays smoothly and the Tsars exit offstage, leaving him stranded alone with the flute.
The play was first produced by Lenkom in 1999 and turned into a film in 2002. It was written by Grigori Gorin, a playwright whose work is “regarded as important element of cultural reaction to the Era of Stagnation and perestroyka in Soviet history.”**
What stuck out to you about this production artistically/technically (what did you admire/learn about as a student theatre artist)?
In depth ensemble work. There was an ensemble of male soldiers and women of the court and every member of the ensemble had a fully developed individual character and action- all together enriching the life on stage. And though every member was unique, they worked together like a machine- seamlessly transforming the stage in between scenes while singing, working off one another during the action- but still listening the entire time. (Ensemble work was also strikingly strong in Мёртвые ду́ши – or “Dead Souls” which I saw at the Gogol center.)
The use of the floor planks. Altering the stage floor discombobulates the perception of the stage- and lends to creating a surrealistic experience for the audience. (An irregular stage floor was used in Мёртвые ду́ши as well.) At the top of the show. When we find Balakirev hiding from the army.
What were you able to connect between this show and the current sociopolitical situations in Russia?
The Jester Balakirev is yanked along from ruler to ruler until he is eventually left stranded. He watches the deterioration of each beloved power figure- deterioration brought about by exhaustion, insecurity, mania, and too much power. Russia’s history is populated with leaders who brought deterioration to themselves and others because of too much power; Ivan the Terrible, Lenin, and Stalin to name some obvious – though I wonder if there is any statement Theatre Lenkom is making about the present in choosing to revive this play. Russia’s current president is Putin and he has been in office- either as prime minister or president- since 1999. Is it at all a comment on his long reign in power, “It’s impossible become a clever king and be not crazy”? Grigori is famous for reflecting Russian sentiment after the fall of the Soviet Union- the Soviet Union tried to be good- it was a good idea- but was it possible for Soviet Union leaders to amass so much power and still do good for their country? Is deterioration of a human power figure inevitable? Can a human being with a lot of power still be just and fair without getting corrupted? I still have a lot of research to do on current Russian sentiment about Putin, about what he has done that is popular and what he has done that is not popular – and also, what he has done that has bettered life in Russia for the majority and worsened life for the majority (and whether these are synonymous with what is and isn’t popular).
***This summary is based off my experience as beginner in Russian language with my friend who speaks more Russian helping me and some research. There may be some variations in details.
More show breakdowns and sociopolitical research to come soon!