“I have to break the fourth wall,” says actor Joel Reuben Ganz, interrupting a stage argument on theatrical style to begin a direct-address dissertation on theatrical style in Mark Jackson’s nifty, genre-bending biodrama, The Death of Meyerhold.
Ganz is playing the title character—theorist, actor, and theater visionary Vsevolod Meyerhold—and his gambit is entirely in character, even as it leaves the emotional realism-defenders with whom he was arguing—Moscow Art Theater founders Stanislavsky (Richard Henrich) and Danchenko (Gregory Stuart)—at a bit of a loss.
“What is he doing?” bellows Danchenko, as Meyerhold faces full front to deliver his lines. Stanislavsky, ever the observer of life as it is lived, is more circumspect, noting the laughs his rival is getting. When Meyerhold’s outburst is over, the man whose work paved the way for Method acting glances our way with a grin that suggests he rather likes the possibilities of fourth-wall breaking.
That should give you a clue as to what Jackson is up to in his neoexpressionist epic about the giants who reshaped 20th-century theatrical form even as the Bolsheviks were reshaping the body politic.
Meyerhold sought literally to revolutionize—to place in service of the revolution—Russian theaters through a method of stylization he called biomechanics. For his pains he found himself on the outs with Stalin, who likely had him shot, while Stanislavsky, championing pre-Soviet naturalism and an actor’s search for emotional truth, became world-renowned (and widely misunderstood). They weren’t opposites, and in the play, they’re depicted as friendly rivals, innovating madly and pushing ideas to extremes, before pulling back to something audiences might actually tolerate.
An early scene finds Stanislavsky drowning out his leading actor with relentless offstage hammering, because stage directions refer to a carpenter at work in the distance. “It’s like in life,” screams a mortified Anton Chekhov (Cecil E. Baldwin), when he sees what the company has wrought from that simple stage direction. “It’s not life.” But when he later subsides into a fit of tubercular coughing, and Death of Meyerhold director Rick Simas has those coughs punctuate the next scene as relentlessly as the hammering did the earlier one, a point about theatrical realism has been quite elegantly made.
In dialogue that must often get across whole paragraphs of exposition but still manages to be quite artful (“We’re paving over all of Russia, and will mix the mortar with blood if need be”), Jackson speeds through more than four decades of stage (r)evolution. This is admittedly enough of a good thing to seem a trifle taxing. At three acts, and very nearly three hours, The Death of Meyerhold contains more theatrical history than patrons may be anxious to absorb at one sitting, especially when the lessons include extensive digressions. Harold Clurman, Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, Clifford Odets, Sanford Meisner, and Elia Kazan all show up for a single scene, to make no larger point than that the Soviet experiment was being watched on this side of the globe. Still, when the lessons come in a package as stylish as the one concocted here by Simas and choreographer Beth Wilmurt, and are put over by a cast as determined to entertain as the one they’ve assembled at the Studio Theatre Secondstage, resistance is, if not futile, at least counterproductive. Argue with a gesture and it’ll turn out to have a punch line; argue with an interpretation and it’ll turn in on itself to make a point.
The Oxford Companion to the Theater describes Meyerhold’s biomechanics thus: “Reducing the actor to the status of puppet, to be manipulated at the whim of the director, it calls for the complete elimination of the player’s personality, and the subjugation of his mind and body to a series of acrobatic turns.” You get a glimpse of what that might be like in the laugh-provoking frozen tableaux Simas and Wilmurt create to represent Meyerhold’s productions of The Inspector General and The Cherry Orchard, as well as in the 90-second, one-woman, wordless Hamlet with which Becky Peters brings down the house in Act 2.
But there’s also plenty of Meyerholdian technique in moments that are played more realistically at Studio—a desperately shy Shostakovich (Scott Kerns) doing a back flip off a pedestal he’d rather not be trapped upon, for instance, or a murderous rampage set to frenzied music. And in Ganz, the production has as ardent and as ferociously stylized a leading man as the master himself might have wished.
Happily, the bare-bones aesthetic Meyerhold championed turns out to be an appropriate fit for Studio’s new Secondstage auditorium, which marks its debut with this production, high above the lobby, on the fourth floor of the troupe’s expanded complex. A lattice of unfinished planking works well with the space’s exposed brick walls. Eric Trester’s informative (and occasionally amusing) projected footnotes and Colin K. Bills’ fluidly stark lighting are also apt for an evening that brings imagination and vast reserves of dry wit to a history lesson that ends up seeming anything but dry.CP