The stretched bolt of black cloth seems, at first glance, as firm and solid as the table for which it’s a stand-in. Masked dinner guests rest their palms on it, giving it a weight and density that has nothing to do with physics. They’re finishing a meal, chatting idly.
Then one guest steps forward into the cloth, and it wraps around his chest like water around the prow of a boat, compacting the other diners behind him and enclosing them in what is abruptlyand with startling claritya death cart. Their necks go slack, their arms protrude at odd angles, and The Feast During the Plague acquires its defining image.
This 20-minute sketchwhich finds equally striking ways to represent
the interring of bodies and even the blooming of graveside flowers (white-gloved hands thrusting upward behind necks and torsos)is the fourth and final playlet in an arrestingly stylized evening of Alexander Pushkin stories at Church Street Theatre. Mounted under the collective title The Little Tragedies by
the off-puttingly named but heartily accessible Stanislavsky Theater Studio, the evening is at once wry and vividly theatricalan auspicious introduction to a promising new troupe.
For most theatergoers, Russian director Konstantin Stanislavsky is inextricably linked with Chekhov, realism, and what came to be known in this country as “Method” acting. But if you have it in your head that that’s all there was to the man’s teachings, Andrei Malaev-Babel and his company have some surprises in store for you. The Stanislavsky Theater Studio (let’s just call it the STS) takes its inspiration not from its namesake’s emphasis on wresting psychological truths from naturalistic dialogue, but from his fervent embrace of aestheticized theatrical stylization after Chekhov’s death in 1904. Far from being staid and somber, the STS approach to Pushkin’s tragic tales involves fanciful costumes that suggest the commedia dell’arte, a jewel-box-like stage setting, and theatrical shenanigans that trade heavily in pantomime, dance, and Cirque du Soleil-style vaudeville tricks.
The four playlets that make up The Little Tragedies offer a nifty showcase for the troupe’s methods. The curtain-raiser, The Miserly Knight, is precisely the fairy tale it sounds, with a spendthrift son (Malaev-Babel) wondering how to circumvent the strictures of his skinflint father (Paata Tsikurishvili), who can hardly be coaxed out of his own vaults. Rejecting a money lender’s suggestion that he use a witch’s brew to bump off the old man, the son discovers that avarice is itself a poison, and that he need only wait for his father to drop dead.
With fluttering hands representing flickering candles and vault doors made of female torsos, the skit is awash in pantomimic cleverness. The most vivid image is probably the alchemist’s dance, performed around a phantom cauldron; the most playful, a counterweight scale constructed of two performers kneeling back-to-back, with their upstage arms swinging in tandem when coins are dropped onto their palms.
The second sketch, Mozart and Salieri, begins unpromisingly, with a five-minute aria sung in German. But once the singer has identified himself as Salieri, and a boyish Mozart has bounced in to complain about compositional travails (“my requiem troubles me deeply”), most audience members will find themselves in familiar territory. Since Pushkin was writing some 150 years before Peter Shaffer, there can be no doubt as to who owes whom for the piece’s similarities to Amadeus. Shaffer’s central conceitthe linking of Salieri’s jealousy to Mozart’s deathmay be handled with less evident glee by Pushkin, but it’s undeniably there. That, alas, is the sketch’s primary point of interest.
After intermission, however, things pick up markedly in Don Juan (The Stone Guest), which concerns a statue that comes briefly to life, giving the swashbuckling seducer the fright of his life. Tsikurishvili plays Don Juan as a cross between Mr. Bean and the sinister-looking but puckish French film star Jean Vigowhich is not to suggest he’s playing the part for laughs, exactly. He just takes the same sly, off-center approach to seduction that he does to swordfights, feinting and parrying with his eyes as much as with the rest of his body. Whether galloping on horseback with his wisecracking sidekick (Malaev-Babel), doing slow-motion leaps off rooftops, or panicking when a statue nods its head at him, he’s a persuasive, amusing mime. Since his romantic quarry is played with Diane Keaton-ish insouciance by Irina Tsikurishvili (the actor’s wife), there’s a real charge to the seductions.
Roland Reed’s adaptation of the tales is economical to the point of skimpiness, but then, that fits STS’ emphasis on the visual. Reed allows Pushkin’s characters the occasional quip, as when Don Juan calls a clergyman “your monkiness,” but for the most part, the evening’s language isn’t nearly as showy as its imagery. Co-directors Malaev-Babel and Paata Tsikurishvili, both of whom hail from the former Soviet Union and had extensive foreign credits prior to relocating in this country, clearly want to find nonverbal ways to convey emotional truths, anyway.
And they’ve come up with some corkers, many of which are reminiscent of the devices employed by Eastern European directors Lucian Pintille and Liviu Ciulei at Arena Stage in years past. Contributing to the evening’s flavor are a score that utilizes works by major Russian composers and angled, vaguely expressionist lighting by Daniel Berk. An observer who is more familiar than I with Eastern Bloc theater techniques pronounced the overall effect “so very Russian” on the way out of the theater, and I’ve no reason to doubt the accuracy of that evaluation. Certainly STS’ work will strike area theatergoers as a bracing change from the essentially Western work produced on most area stages. I can think of only a couple of local directors who emphasize visuals so strongly (Potomac Theatre Project’s Richard Romagnoli and Scena’s Robert McNamara come to mind) and only one (Le Neon’s Didier Rousselet) who works persuasively with mime.
That said, there is an occasional portentousness to the staging of The Little Tragedies that keeps the evening’s playlets from taking flight as consistently as they should. Some of the balletic movement that lends the evening its tone is as evocative as it is graceful, but some is just slow. And while the Tsikurishvilis are expert pantomime artists, not everyone onstage is of their caliber.
Still, this is only STS’ second production (the first having been a pantomime adaptation of Chekhov’s children’s tale, Kashtanka, that remains in the company’s repertory). Judging from the talent on display, the troupe will have the sort of healthy future that guarantees plenty of time for fine-tuning.CP