Studio Theatre of Moscow-Southwest

at the UIC Theatre

Maybe it’s the way American actors doing Russian plays are trained to keep more on the inside than they show on the outside. Or maybe it’s just that we still base our ideas about Russian theater on the 19th-century examples of Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Chekhov–in awkward English translations and using ossified interpretations of Stanislavsky’s acting theories. If the Studio Theatre of Moscow-Southwest, currently performing three full-length plays in Chicago under the sponsorship of the University of Illinois, manages to spark even a small change in the way Russian drama is perceived in America it will have done us a great service.

Young, loud, and enthusiastic, STM is no classically trained state-supported establishment troupe. Formed during the late 70s under the artistic direction of Valeryi Beliakovich, this group of artists–many of whom had no formal theatrical training and who worked day jobs as truck drivers, librarians, clerks, and factory hands–succeeded in converting the basement of a vegetable store on the south side of Moscow into a theater. They attracted the attention of major theater critics with their productions of plays formerly banned by the government, and in 1985 became the first independently owned and financed theater in Russia since 1917. This is grassroots theater growing after a drought most American companies can only imagine.

Moliere, by Mikhail Bulgakov, might be more appropriately titled The Last Days of Moliere. The works of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, known to us as Moliere, are full of tales of old men trying to marry young girls. His plays usually end with the elderly lecher seeing the error of his ways and the natural order restored. Moliere himself, however, decided at the age of 40 to forsake his long friendship with Madeleine Bejart, an actress in his company, to marry the 19-year-old Armande–who Madeleine claimed was her sister, but who may have actually been Moliere’s daughter by Madeleine. Rumors about this question, compounded by the controversy over his satire on religious hypocrisy Le Tartuffe, eventually lost Moliere the king’s patronage and helped cause the collapse of his health and marriage. He died at 51 during a performance of his The Imaginary Invalid.

Bulgakov’s play chronicles Moliere’s rise and fall, but its significance goes beyond exposing a 17th-century celebrity and the scandal that followed him. This play is also an allegory of conflict between the artist and authority–in this case, the church and the state, the combined efforts of which eventually destroy both art and artist–a conflict unmistakably relevant to the state of affairs in postrevolutionary Russia. In a letter to his brother in 1930 Bulgakov wrote, “I am condemned to silence. . . .Under incredible conditions in the second part of 1929, I wrote a play about Moliere. It was acclaimed by the best specialists of Moscow the strongest of all my five plays. From all indications, they will not allow it on the stage . . . though I did not mention contemporary life [in it] at all.” The play was produced once in 1936 by the Moscow Art Theatre, by then the only theater permitted by the Stalinist government to conduct business. It was not done again until STM revived it in 1980.

The passion and sincerity of artists saluting one of their peers, as well as the exultation that comes with the lifting of old proscriptions, is apparent in STM’s performance. The acting style is big and grand, almost operatic, with happiness expressed by roars of laughter, sadness in shrieks of anguish, and anger in bellows of rage–all of which could easily come off as silly and overdone, but don’t. In UIC’s cavernous vault of a theater and against the high-tech synthesizer score by Jean-Michel Jarre, anything smaller would be virtually invisible. Also noteworthy was the disciplined precision of the actors’ movements–when a character falls to the stage, one doesn’t wonder if he has hurt himself, as one frequently does with certain American actors who crash into stage surfaces. Neither are the STM actors afraid to take their time with a gesture–unlike method actors, who seem to think about their action a long time before taking it, these actors make the action begin in the preceding stasis, so that we see the action flow through the actor’s body before he actually changes position.

Particularly outstanding performances are those of Victor Avilov as the doomed Moliere, Aleksey Vanin as the vulpine Archbishop Charron, and Valeryi Afanasjev as the stentorian Marquis d’Orsini. As Louis XIV, Viacheslav Grishechkin (whom Americans may remember from a recent Billy Crystal television special) effectively steals every scene in which he appears.

The only flaw in the evening’s entertainment was due to a mechanical malfunction. Simultaneous English translation was to have been provided through headsets to non-Russian-speaking audience members by translators in the technician’s booth who heard the dialogue via an onstage microphone. Midway into the production the microphone failed. After struggling to follow the onstage action, the crew finally threw open the sound-booth shutters to allow the translators to hear whatever words they could from across the auditorium.

During opening night of The Marriage by Nikolay Gogol, the translators’ sound system was down completely. So was Victor Avilov, who had contracted a bad case of laryngitis the night before. Valeryi Beliakovich himself took on Avilov’s role, and some hastily typed plot synopses were distributed to audience members–along with headsets in case the sound miraculously recovered during the performance (it didn’t).

As operagoers can attest, one is frequently surprised by what one notices when viewing a play in a language one doesn’t understand. Instead of looking for clues to what will happen next, we attend to how it happens and discover ourselves laughing at jokes even though we are not sure what those jokes are. In this case many of the laughs were generated by the visual humor of the characterizations.

Gogol’s play tells the story of Podkolesin (played with Tom Sawyer boyishness by Victor Borisov, seen in Moliere as the stolid, middle-aged Registre), a buttoned-down bachelor who has employed a matchmaker to find him a wife, but who develops cold feet whenever matrimony impends. Agafia, his would-be bride, is played by the statuesque and extremely funny Larisa Uromova, an actress who’s also notably larger than her groom-to-be. As the best buddy Kochkarev, himself married and desiring company in his misery, Beliakovich puts his mischievously smirking face to good use. Irina Bochorishvily, the pale and tragic Madeleine from Moliere, is all flinty-faced businesswoman as the matchmaker. Indeed, it is to the credit of the STM actors that one often has trouble recognizing an actor from one role to the next. Nowhere is this more evident than in Aleksey Vanin’s portrayal of Anuchkin the Aesthete–a role as far from his sinister character in Moliere as could be imagined.

Mention must also be made of the breathtaking costumes by Aleksandr Pushkin–brilliantly hued, rippling like a sunset on moving water, these are garments to make even the great Leon Bakst envious.

For opening night of The Old Sins by Anton Chekhov, adapted by Valeryi Beliakovich, a theater critic from Pravda was in the audience. Avilov’s voice was functioning again. The translation sound system was operating flawlessly. Yet not only was this to be the American premiere of this play, but for the first time in its history STM was to perform in English–no easy feat considering that none of the actors speaks more than a word or two of English and that they had all memorized their parts with the assistance of a bilingual acting coach.

The Old Sins consists of dramatic adaptations of seven of Chekhov’s short stories linked by excerpts from his letters to his editor, read by a character representing the author (played by UIC student Daniel Parent). Even Chekhov’s most stalwart fans will admit that his reputation is founded more on his dramatic than his comedic works. Unlike Gogol, whose comedies are usually based on the themes of sex and politics (both substantially unchanged since the time of Aristophanes), Chekhov attempts to blend humor with realism, a practice that frequently results in a now-you-laugh-and-now-you-cry ambivalence. That has never played well with American audiences, who perceive the line between comedy and tragedy as much broader than old-world cultures–perhaps because when suffering is more widespread people feel more comfortable laughing at the misfortunes of others, or maybe it has something to do with a fixed class system.

The stories included in The Old Sins are nearly all dependent on one-shot gags, and many have an edge of cruelty that even the most farcical staging cannot overcome. In “The Diplomat” a man, cautioned to break the news gently to a weak-hearted husband that his wife has died, ends up claiming that she is still alive–almost–until the husband grows so agitated that he has a heart attack and dies. In “In a Foreign Land” a Frenchman employed in Russia must endure the Francophobic insults of his boss or risk having his passport impounded indefinitely. Yes, real life is often violent or unpleasant, but then how often is real life–somebody else’s anyway–funny?

There are also several topical references to glasnost and George Bush, and a few jokes pitched to American audiences. When five foolish fishermen catch a huge catfish, they all shout “Jaws!” In another sketch a character claims to have “embezzled a million.” “Dollars?” asks another character. “No–rubles, of course!”

Having succeeded the night before with The Marriage in making an old play new through innovative and fast-paced staging, STM’s attempt to do it again was a brave one. But they cannot salvage material that, whatever it may have had to say to Chekhov’s audiences, speaks in a feeble voice to American audiences in 1990.

Again, Viacheslav Grishechkin works wonders with what he’s given. His English is also better than that of the other cast members, whose pronunciations range from adequate to barely intelligible, though having worked in UIC’s theater, I can say in their defense that the acoustics of that space make it very easy to lose words. Sergei Beliakovich displays a fine sense of comic invention as the most repellent dentist since Marathon Man, and Vladimir Koppalov projects a Charlie Brown wimpiness as an amateur author beset by too many well-meaning critics. Aleksey Vanin contributes another chameleonlike portrayal as the ignorant widower, and Victor Avilov does a nice Marty Feldman turn as a timid man chosen by his coworkers to complain to the boss.

At the Moliere reception someone asked Valeryi Beliakovich who were the most popular American playwrights in the Soviet Union. To the astonishment of the questioner he replied, “Edward Albee and Neil Simon–Tennessee Williams too.” (What answer did he expect–Clifford Odets, the so-called American Chekhov?) Both the United States and the Soviet Union have paid a heavy price for their isolation from each other. The exchange program between the University of Illinois’ theater department and the Studio Theatre of Moscow-Southwest has flourished in the year or two since its inception, and the number of overseas tours for both companies this year is up. Promoting firsthand cross-cultural communication can only help to brush away misunderstandings.