A young actor strums a guitar, sashaying. He drops to his knees, all the while lip-synching to Al Green's "A Change Is Gonna Come."
He's in set designer Emile Kapelyush's hovel built of slatted wood, with a ceiling fan. When he hits just the right position facing a point in the wall, his face is broadcast to the audience on a video screen. He's in the middle of his own MTV shoot, conjured by his imagination and reinforced by ours. A decrepit van is parked on one side of the stage. (It will be blown to smithereens by play's end.) A filthy, empty refrigerator stands on the other side of the stage. (It will be filled, somewhat enigmatically, by play's end.) The scene is set in the late 1970s in the California desert, a slightly absurdist, slightly mythical place. The play is Sam Shepard's 1977 family-dysfunction drama Curse of the Starving Class.
The production, however, is unfolding in the Russian city of Saratov, some 500 miles from Moscow, on the banks of the Volga River, a city of 850,000 people.
"I was born by the river/In a little tent/Just like the river/I been running ever since," the young man croons desperately, forlorn and jubilant in the same breath.
He's dressed in dark attire, jeans and cowboy boots, a black wool cap and fingerless gloves. He's so cool, this guy could have his own band, he could be a star. That's how the myth goes, anyway. And the depiction of this myth, and others — including zombies and the culture of fear, and the movies they engendered — are either stated or suggested by the text. Here, however, the director's depiction of them is so brazen, it borders on mockery.
Audiences under 30, in on the joke, are rolling in laughter. The older audience members stare intensely, curiously, perplexed by the humor. The divide in Russian theater, like ours, has far less to do with East and West than with romanticism and cynicism, with age and youth.
"It's been too hard living, and I'm afraid to die/'Cause I don't know what's up there in yonder sky/It's been a long, long time coming/But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will."
The music, blasted in through a finely tuned sound system, accompanies the gospel-blues ditty with a slow but inexorable pulse. One man in the packed audience of some 500 starts clapping his hands. He's an older version of the actor on the stage, in his early 70s — a slightly wiry fellow, dark attire, boots, a woolen cap, working by himself to rouse the audience to join him and support the lip-synching actor whose job it is to impersonate Al Green through the entire five-and-a-half minute song. And the man in the audience does get some support, starting with the trim blond woman sitting next to him. Within a few seconds, a smattering of simultaneous clapping to the song's beat can be heard throughout the theater, but even the younger audiences are too hip and cynical to display such overt emotion. It's a tough crowd.
The man sitting crunched in his seat with his hands clapping to and fro in the sky is the show's director, Lee Breuer, brought to Saratov to stage an American classic. The woman sitting next to him is his partner of 12 years, actress Maude Mitchell — both famously of the New York experimental theater troupe Mabou Mines. This is the same company that created Gospel at Colonus, Peter and Wendy and — most recently, at UCLA Live — Mabou Mines Dollhouse, based on Ibsen's play. (Mitchell starred in that production as an Amazonian Nora amidst an ensemble of men, played by little people, who presumed, wrongly, that they were in command of the play's Norwegian households and the society they represented.)
This is opening night for Curse of the Starving Class, which means the play is entering the current repertory of 40 plays at Saratov's elegant and beautiful Theatre Yunogo Zri-telya. It will play twice a week at first, cutting back to maybe twice a month over time. The company employs 70 actors for life. The salaries are poor but they are salaries, says one of the theater's staff. Employment generally consists of 20 performances per month.
The theater's general manager, Valery Raykov, reports that despite Russia's economic crisis, state funding for his three-theater complex has remained stable. There was discussion by the governors in the Saratov and Moscow regions of replacing state funding for the arts with the American system, subjecting the theaters to commercial competition. It was a vigorous debate, Raykov says, but they understood that a changeover would cost the region many of its good theaters. With some adjustments, the old system still stands.
Breuer has carved out a more vigorous directing career outside of the United States than within it, thanks to theaters such as the Saratov Yunogo Zritelya, which is opening its doors to international influence. I saw four productions in as many days, employing directors from the U.S., Germany, France and Russia. Critics had arrived from Bulgaria, Paris and the U.S. Keep in mind that Saratov, at one time a munitions storage center, was closed to foreigners under Soviet rule.
The ensemble is uniformly strong, thanks in large part to Mitchell coaching the actors through traditional character motivation, juxtaposed against Breuer's conceptual staging. Psychological Stanislavsky meets symbolist Meyerhold. Both approaches came from Russia, which is why this particular whacked rendition of Shepard's play is so at home here.
The play is rarely done because it calls for a live lamb. Here, the beast — an adult sheep, actually — parades along the upstage wall chewing the scenery. (This is one of those rare moments when a critic can employ that cliché and be on the mark.) In a later scene, a bathtub filled with soil and flowers emerges from the stage floor — a kind of grave — containing the sheep, which gazes out over the audience, plaintively munching on one of the flowers. An actor brushes and embraces the sheep — his only friend. And this is where the production makes a soft landing, after being buffeted by crosswinds of parody and cynicism. Though a sacrifice of the beast (no, the sheep is not actually slaughtered, or it couldn't perform in rep) is as inevitable as it is mythological, part of that mythology is redemption, and the sight of a living creature adds a layer of tenderness that could be said to reside beneath the prickly veneer of the most hardened heart — which so many of Shepard's characters have.
At curtain call, the audience gives the production one of those Eastern European ovations of simultaneous clapping that's a sign of admiration and respect.
Sometimes it takes going across the world to see what's in our own backyard. At a press conference following the opening performance, Breuer (who grew up in Los Angeles in the late 1940s) talked about how the cynical humor of our age (born of the Vietnam War quagmire) has replaced the earnest, romantic optimism of earlier American generations, and how his production aims to appeal to and cut through that very cynicism.
Breuer, who stands at the vanguard of American experimental theater with Richard Foreman, Elizabeth LeCompte and Canadian Robert Wilson, also addressed the war in contemporary American theater that may be stultifying the progress of the form. This also may explain why Breuer, a radical conceptual director, finds more work outside the United States than in it.
There are the "traditionalists," he explained, and the "inventionists" — "those who believe that nothing should be changed and those who believe that everything should be changed."
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What's so telling about Breuer's productions of both Dollhouse and Curse of the Starving Class is how, through all the rattling and rolling of concepts, the cast of Amazons and little people, the blowing up of cars and the sacrifice of sheep, the plays still emerge intact, speaking soulfully to new, more skeptical generations.
"A new play," he said, "should be done exactly the way the playwright intended it for the first four or five productions." But once it gets to be known, it has to be reinterpreted, or it will die.
Breuer is off next to Paris, to the Comedie Français, to stage Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, scheduled to open in February — presuming the Williams estate will tolerate Breuer's directorial flourishes.
CURSE OF THE STARVING CLASS | By SAM SHEPARD | Staged by LEE BREUER at the SARATOV THEATRE YUNOGO ZRITELYA | Saratov, Russia; in repertory, indefinitely