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A Russian-language Three Sisters is one thing, but Twelfth Night? I’m going to guess I wasn’t alone in attending the Chekhov Festival’s exquisitely comic Shakespearean attraction last week more intrigued by its all-male casting than by the prospect of hearing “if music be the food of love” rendered as “Yesli muzyka budet pishcha lyubvi.”
Synetic Theater’s wordless Shakespeare has been making a case for a while now that there’s more to the Bard’s work than language, but the company’s done so by replacing his words with movement, not with different words. Happily, director Declan Donnellan’s breathcatchingly visual approach incorporates movement too—-characters gliding arm-in-arm in sweeping stagewide arcs, lurching tipsily into vodka-induced ballets, hurling themselves to the floor in lovesick tantrums—-until you realize how little it matters whether a cast speaks English or Russian as long as the director is fluent in Theater.
Donnellan and designer Nick Ormerod (co-founders of the Cheek By Jowl company) are fluent enough not to bother using their all-male gimmick simply to make Viola and Sebastian, the play’s separated twins, look more alike than is generally possible—-one’s blond here, actually, the other dark—-but instead to comment on the fluidity of identity in a play that’s already playing gender games. Sure, Andrey Kuzichev’s tomboyishly seductive Viola and Alexey Dadonov’s aristocratic Olivia are the ones who draw your eye, partly because they stand out not at all when the ensemble first gathers on stage, and then distinguish themselves so delicately in gesture and gait that you can’t quite figure out what they’re doing that’s making you see them differently. But everyone’s posing—-not least Igor Yasulovich, who’d make a deliciously creepy, sexually ambiguous M.C. should Donnellan next decide to stage a Russian-language Cabaret.
The director’s mixed-cast Three Sisters was similarly evocative though less spare—-the stage filled with chairs, tables, and photos to situate Chekhov’s teeming domestic dramedy in a slightly more naturalistic world. The result in each case, pretty damn glorious…and alas, gone, as the Chekhov Festival was only at the KenCen for one week.