As do many American cities, Moscow has a general plan, a policy document that envisions huge population increases and is preparing for them by engaging in a demolition derby of old factories and apartment buildings, replacing them with high-rise luxury condos that will change the face and character of the city.
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This Marriage will end badly, Yevgenia Simonova and Igor Kodyolrbdky in Gogol's comedy at Moscow's Mayakovsky Theater
Add to this the war being waged by Mayor Yuri Lushkov against pyatietashki — the five-story Soviet apartment blocks that were built as part of the post–World War II housing frenzy. There are thousands of such buildings across the city, all occupied by residents facing eminent-domain relocation, sometimes to neighborhoods far from the now-pricey districts where they’ve lived for decades. The mayor has vowed to demolish all pyatietashki by 2020. Not only is this gentrification, Russian style, it marks the end of an era. Behind every pyatietashki, you’ll find a wooded garden with a playground for children. The Soviets were criminals and heathens in many regards, but they did understand the value of public green space. These bucolic urban woods, too, are now being bulldozed, one by one, so they can be filled with high-rises.
It’s in this atmosphere that Muscovites are pouring into their Sovremennik Theatre to see Anton Chekhov’s classic The Cherry Orchard, a play set at the turn of the last century about the end of that era. The aesthetically glorious but practically useless cherry orchard is a central feature of the rustic estate owned by dithering, impoverished aristocrats Lyubov Andreyevna Ranyevskaya (Marina Neyolova) and her brother, Leonid Gayev (Igor Kvasha). Their property is about to be foreclosed and auctioned, unless — as they’re constantly reminded by successful New Russian merchant Yermolai Lopahkin (Sergei Garmash) — they ax the woods and subdivide the property into lots for summer dachas. This is more than the owners can bear. They resolve their irresolution by doing nothing, and losing everything.
Director Galina Volchek told The New York Times’ Mel Gussow 10 years ago that in the Soviet Union of the ’70s, Lopahkin and his material ambitions were regarded contemptuously. Not so in 2008, a change that may also have something to do with actor Garmash’s warm intensity.
After premiering in New York at the Martin Beck Theatre, Volchek’s production opened in Moscow in December 1997, and most of the same actors are still performing it every month or two in a 26-play repertory, a schedule that sustains it as a highly anticipated event.
Pavel Parkhomenko’s set provides a backdrop of sculpted trees — crude slabs of painted wood. There’s no samovar in sight, just a door frame (no walls), a bookcase, a downstage wishing well and a few chairs. Volchek leaves the rest to her spit-polished actors, who move the play along with a crisp musculature. Some speeches get an assist from composer Vyacheslav Zaitsev’s accompaniments, which create ironically upbeat juxtapositions against the unfolding tragedy.
Madame Ranyevskaya remarks to ancient manservant Firs (Valentin Gaft) how old he’s become. In English translations, Firs replies whimsically, “That’s because I’ve lived for such a long time” (nine words). What Chekhov actually wrote was zhivoo dolga, two words that mean exactly the same — and caused the Russian audience to howl with laughter. Imagine such a moment repeated over a three-hour play, and you might see how the expansive ambiance of what we’ve come to understand as Chekhov is actually a great playwright of compact dialogue lost in translation. Linguistically at least, Chekhov is an old Russian cousin to two American Neils: Simon and LaBute.
“Eternal student” Piotr Trofimov (Alexander Khobansky) chastises the estate’s owners: They think about nothing serious, they read nothing interesting, and they do nothing worthy — they should be working. His speech garnered a round of applause in the young audience, a post-Soviet generation that’s prospering from its labor — as well as from the flow of Siberian oil that’s keeping Russia’s economy booming.
I can imagine this must have been the unsentimental reaction of young Soviet audiences in the midst of nation-building circa 1947. In one scene, set half a century earlier, the characters stand around in the woods as the sun goes down. Like startled deer, they freeze at the sound of something far away, something in a mineshaft, perhaps, or the sound of the Red Army closing in. Chekhov didn’t live to see that, but his full-length plays, which hint at an impending cataclysm, are comedies about long goodbyes, the muted terror of something known slipping away into something that isn’t.
Though he’s decisive in business, wealthy bachelor Lopahkin can’t, or won’t, propose to Madame Ranyevskaya’s daughter, Varya (Elena Yakovleva), despite her mother’s best matchmaking efforts, Varya’s dutiful temperament and the absence of any compelling reason why they shouldn’t marry. Such romantic ditherers can be found throughout Russian literature, from Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin to Gogol’s Ivan Polkolyesin — the central character in a play called The Marriage. It’s not done much in the West, but in Moscow, two major rep companies — Theatre Lenkom and the Mayakovsky Theatre — are performing the comedy within walking distance of each other.
Rambunctious matchmaker Fekla Ivanovna finally convinces reluctant Polkolyesin at least to visit beautiful, aging Agafya, a scene interrupted by the arrival of Polkolyesin’s friend, Kochkarev, furious with the matchmaker for arranging his own, miserable marriage.
After being summarily dismissed by the two men, the matchmaker rushes to Agafya, eager to marry her to anybody in casePolkolyesin woos her on his own and she doesn’t get her cut. What follows is a collision of scheming suitors at Agafya’s abode, including Polkolyesin, the only gent Agafya takes a shine to. The rest are either geriatrics or prancing fops; one suitor is obsessed with whether or not Agafya speaks French, a standard of worldliness in the isolated Russian aristocracy that’s a source of relentless mockery in Russian literature.
Mark Zakharov’s staging at the Lenkom is a modernist farce set on a stage with revolving walls of slatted wood (set by Alexei Kondratyev). Characters burst in and out of a large vanity — one of the few pieces of furniture on the stage, and Viktor Rakov plays the lead who can’t make up his mind as though perching on the brink of lunacy. This renders his inner conflict, his existence in general, a kind of derangement. A small band of musicians hangs on the side in capes and long, fake noses. You’d think this high-voltage interpretation would start to wear, but it doesn’t — perhaps because of small moments of tender counter-relief. One almost-blind suitor wanders the empty stage as the walls literally spin. Hostile sidelight casts his shadow large onto one of the shifting walls. Confusing his shadow with something real, he tries in vain to grasp at it — a fleeting image of horrific beauty.
Sergei Artsybashev’s production at the Mayakovsky is staggeringly different and equally popular. I imagined for a moment I was back in a play by Chekhov, with the foliage-decorated set and the languor of Igor Kostolevsky’s Polkolyesin, who would grimace through his many moments of indecision, particularly when taking the hand of his would-be bride (the gorgeously fiery Yevgeniya Simonova). A choir wandered on and off for interludes of Russian folk songs, generating smiles of bliss on the faces of the audience. I never imagined Gogol could be interpreted so wistfully.
Whereas Chekhov’s characters rarely fib, Gogol’s conniving lot rarely tell the truth. They are, nonetheless, equally deluded and eventually tricked by offstage events. This view from the Russian classics makes a case for paying attention to worlds larger than our own. As Russia emerges from its post-Soviet nightmare, and we teeter on the edge of our own, it’s something to keep in mind.
THE CHERRY ORCHARD (VISHNYOVY SAD) | By ANTON CHEKHOV | Presented by SOVREMENNIK THEATRE, 19A Chistoprudny Bulvar (Metro stop: Chistiye Prudy), Moscow | In repertory indefinitely | (011-7) (495) 621-6473 or www.sovremennik.ru
THE MARRIAGE (ZHENITBA) | By NIKOLAI GOGOL | Presented by THEATRE LENKOM, 6 Malaya Dimitrovka (Metro stop: Pushkinskaya), Moscow | In repertory indefinitely | (011-7) (495) 699-9668/0708 or www.lenkom.ru
THE MARRIAGE (ZHENITBA) | By NIKOLAI GOGOL | Presented by MAYAKOVSKY THEATRE, 19 Bolshaya Nikitskaya Ulitsa (Metro stop: Pushkinskaya/Arbatskaya), Moscow | In repertory indefinitely | (011-7) (495) 290-4658/6241 or www.mayakovsky.ru