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/ / Layers of Psyche

Layers of Psyche

: "The scow Times"
February 13 19, 2004

Writers have always doubled as psychologists, and vice versa. In two new productions of plays by psychological writers Alexander Stroganov and Anton Chekhov, the subconscious takes center stage.

By John Freedman

It was Anton Chekhov as much as any other who opened the door to psychology in the theater. So perhaps the next logical step is for psychologists like Alexander Stroganov to write plays. Stroganov may not be the first to cross over into the sphere of drama from psychology, but he is the first in Russia to have had some success doing it.

Both Chekhov and Stroganov are represented in recent productions - "The Seagull" by the former at the Theater Na Pokrovke and the latter's "Tea Ceremony," a production of the Stary Theater playing at the new Theater Center Na Strastnom.

Stroganov's plays - his best-known to date is "Ornithology" - are slightly skewed, dreamlike explorations of the subconscious. Watching them is rather like gaining access to pictures of someone's mind while they are asleep. They are filled with repetitions, unexplained leaps of fantasy, obscure references and heavy hints at taboo relationships.

It is characteristic of Stroganov that the psychologist in him always retains the upper hand over the playwright. We feel the pressure of a healer working on us, encouraging us to explore ignored aspects of our experience for our own betterment. We are asked to descend into a strange world of psychological dysfunction laced with pain primarily because the author clearly sees that act as having therapeutic powers. The dramatic components of these mind games tend to occupy a place of secondary importance.

In "Tea Ceremony," director Karen Nersesyan was especially sensitive to the needs and interests of Dr. Stroganov. With designer Vadim Tallerov, he employed a slightly otherworldly environment in which a transparent screen usually separates the audience from the characters. A second screen in the back sets off still another plane of action that, perhaps, corresponds to a deeper layer of the subconscious. The ethereal atmosphere is enhanced by the dim, colored lighting refracting off the screens, and by two musicians who play the Thereminvox (Yana and Lana Aksyonova).

The play has a cyclical nature, with the same basic conversation being started over and over again, taking on new shades and themes as it develops. A troubled, frustrated man (Vyacheslav Nevinny Jr.) comes to a calm, ever-smiling woman (Darya Kazeyeva) to engage her in talk. The relationship that binds them is deep but uncertain since the ritualistic nature of their meetings - a Japanese tea ceremony conducted by the woman - obscures many of the behavioral signs that might otherwise help the audience define their union.

Is this woman, who finds herself answering to different names, the man's lover? His wife? His mother? His childhood neighbor? Is she all of these in one? Whatever the answer, the journey of the performance takes us back into the past of a still young, but already aging man who has lost his taste for poetry, is at odds with his surroundings, is losing his health, is increasingly short-tempered and has developed a dangerous cruel streak.

The woman, for her part, commands great powers of concentration, feeling, understanding and forgiveness. She invariably retains her stoically cheery countenance and is always ready to punish herself by pouring hot water on the inside of her thigh when the man demands it. She also is the one who will strip the man and give him a bath that cleanses him against his will.

Nersesyan's production is conscientiously directed and acted. I can imagine it stirring animated discussions if it were to be performed at a conference of practicing psychologists. For the theater, however, it strikes me as being excessively clinical and insufficiently dramatic.

Chekhov was a poet. A poet of theater and of human tragedy. "The Seagull," perhaps the most flawed of Chekhov's four great plays, is, in large part, a play about poetry. A play about art and artists. But if it were just an expose of the problems of art, it would never have become one of the world's best-known and best-loved plays. Most of all, "The Seagull" is a work that allows us to see clearly and believably the hard truths about ourselves and the flawed lives we live.

The Theater Na Pokrovke has the reputation of being one of Moscow's most intimate playhouses, and Gennady Shaposhnikov's production of "The Seagull" there is entirely within this tradition. It begins with a lazy singalong involving most of the cast, while a kindly, though ironic, guitar player (Mikhail Segenyuk) wanders the stage in almost every subsequent scene, imparting to the proceedings a tangible homespun flavor. This atmosphere is enhanced by several scenes in which the cast gathers in portrait-like poses for motionless pauses.

The hall at this theater is essentially an oversized room that seats 100. This allows the actors to speak in low, calm voices, whisper and even mutter under their breath in a way that personally reaches every spectator in attendance.

Shaposhnikov further broke down theatrical formalities by staging the play as if it were a series of rehearsals. This is not something he adheres to strictly, but rather uses occasionally to bring the actors more closely to us as they announce themselves at the beginning and later incorporate some of Chekhov's stage directions in their speech.

The plot of the 108-year-old play is familiar. Arkadina (Nina Artsibasheva), an actress entering middle age, finds herself caught in a vortex of relationships between her lover, the popular writer Trigorin (Alexander Smirnov); her son, the experimental writer Treplev (Sergei Zagrebnev); and the young Nina Zarechnaya (Natalya Fishchuk), a would-be actress who is involved first with Treplev, then with Trigorin and whose youth and beauty, if not talent, present a distinct challenge to Arkadina's dominance in the small, extended family group. Among others observing and participating in the circle's complex personal interactions are Arkadina's simple and sentimental brother Sorin (Vladimir Stukalov) and the cynical but wise and understanding Dr. Dorn (Gennady Chulkov).

This performance is richest in its exploration of human connections and frictions. Artsibasheva's Arkadina is wonderful in her generously condescending but acidly jealous treatment of Fishchuk's fresh, bright Nina. Zagrebnev's nervous, sensitive Treplev has an innocence that Smirnov's weary but sincere Trigorin has difficulty recognizing, let alone understanding. Chulkov's Dorn evokes both respect and aversion for his honesty that occasionally borders on cruelty, while Stukalov's Sorin induces a similar response for his ingenuous good nature and his maudlin behavior.

Viktor Gerasimenko's set of basic black and white emphasizes the qualities of simplicity and contrast. Drapes of black and off-white alternate on the walls; hand-cut black-and-white leaves scatter the floor; most of the costumes are in plain but elegant whites and beiges.

This production rarely plumbs the cold depths of the characters' wasted and misguided lives, preferring instead to stick closer to a warmer surface of tempered emotions. But on that level, it brings out many effective and affecting nuances in a play we seemingly have known forever.

"The Seagull" (Chaika) plays Thurs. at 7 p.m. at the Theater Na Pokrovke, located at 50/2 Ulitsa Pokrovka. Metro Kurskaya. Tel. 917-0263. Running time: 3 hours, 10 minutes.

"Tea Ceremony" (Chainaya Tseremoniya), a production of the Stary Theater, plays Feb. 27 at 7 p.m. at the Theater Center Na Strastnom, loocated at 8a Strastnoi Bulvar. Metro Chekhovskaya, Pushkinskaya. Tel. 200-4696, 316-0757. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.

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