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Zones of Turbulence

Friday, December 28, 2007.

Тне Moscow Times

By John Freedman

The love of philosophy and the philosophy of love. Now there is something to keep a writer busy. Just think of it -- the secrets, the lies, the deceptions and the treachery -- all in the name of sweet, sweet seduction. Love and death, joy and pain, desire and loss -- all useful tools in the pursuit of knowledge. Two new independent productions, "Ornithology" from Drugoi Teatr and "Casanova: Lessons of Love" from Teatralny Marafon, take us on journeys into this well-known, but still uncharted, territory.

"Ornithology" is one of nearly two dozen plays written by Dr. Alexander Stroganov, a practicing psychiatrist from the Altai region of western Siberia. It was the first of his dramas to achieve recognition when it appeared in the early 1990s, and it continues to be the one produced most often around the country. It is a crafty piece, in the sense of being cunning and devious, although it is also written with a clear understanding of the dramatist's craft. This is not always in the play's favor. Like other works by Stroganov, "Ornithology" has an artificial, schematic feel. Characters, situations and relationships clearly stand for concepts that the author seeks to explore. Even when acted well, as in this production by Vladimir Ageyev, they can be stiff and lifeless.

Savva (Alexander Bagdasarov) is your average male, a bit lazy, a bit vain and thoroughly conventional in his attitudes to sexual relations. Marriage is fine, he thinks, but that's no reason to shun a little excitement on the side when the chance arises. This brings him to pay frequent visits to his neighbors, the brother-and-sister pair of Tanechka (Irina Grinyova) and Lyonechka (Alexander Usov). Something about these free spirits inspires and titillates him. Both are eccentrics -- he a bird enthusiast whose hobby far exceeds an obsession; she a painter whose ideas about art are much more stimulating than her paintings. Tanechka, moreover, is a serious tease, and Savva is certain that he is on the verge of winning a place, if not in her heart, then at least in the darker recesses of her libido. All of them find common ground playing abstract games that constantly keep Savva's desires whetted and Tanechka's purity mostly unscathed.

On the night Stroganov describes, Tanechka and Savva wait for the arrival of Lyonechka in order to wish him a happy birthday. But as Savva learns quickly enough, this will be a party from hell. In fact, Tanechka and Lyonechka plan to experiment on their unsuspecting visitor. They want to see how much freedom a man like Savva can withstand. If he can survive the breakdown of his conservative mores, might that make him capable of flying? They have a perfect apartment in which to conduct their test -- it has a large, high window looking out over the city. A perfect launch pad for someone preparing to make his maiden flight. In this dramatized duel, Stroganov pits the forces of chaos, freedom and creativity against the forces of conformity, obedience and conventionality. Throughout the performance one is repeatedly called upon to question whether the striving for absolute freedom is a liberating or a destructive impulse.

As the sexually provocative Tanechka, Grinyova is the picture of female seduction. Tantalizing and dizzyingly capricious, she constantly changes her mind and the rules of the games she plays. Bagdasarov's Savva wears the stamp of normalcy on his forehead. He has mastered the rules of society, including those marginal ones giving a person the right to violate the rules, as long as he does it discreetly and without excess. The master of this trio is Usov's Lyonechka, a charismatically bizarre being who not only worships birds and their ability to break free of earth's bounds, but who exhibits birdlike mannerisms himself. He hops about like a sparrow and shows no more concern for his victim than an eagle might for a mouse.

This excellent cast makes each of these characters interesting in his or her own right. What they cannot do is make them larger or more complex than the significance the author attached to them. Whatever else it may be, "Ornithology" is primarily an exercise in psychological theory. Ageyev played along with Stroganov, imparting a thickly mystical atmosphere to the goings-on. Designer Marina Filatova emphasized this by outfitting the stage walls with sheer, flowing drapes and odd, abstract paintings.

There is game-playing of another kind in Andrei Zhitinkin's production of "Casanova: Lessons in Love." The program lists the author as one Garry Kramskoi, although it doesn't take much to determine that the play actually was written by the poets Viktor Korkiya and Alexander Lavrin. Under their names the play has been running for well over a decade in a production by Yevgeny Slavutin at MOST, the Moscow Open Student Theater.

The new pseudonymous version mounted by the Teatralny Marafon agency is what is typically known these days as a "commercial production." Several well-known actors are summoned at relatively short notice to enact a play that is given a minimum of thought by directors and designers. In this case, the program lists no designer at all, which is understandable. The circular platform and two mirrored screens on an empty stage can hardly be called a theatrical set. As for Zhitinkin's direction, one would be hard-pressed to find it with the aid of a high-powered microscope. Zhitinkin's main object appears to have been to keep the actors from bumping into one another as they come and go on stage.

Korkiya and Lavrin's "Casanova: Lessons of Love" is a whimsical take on an old tradition -- the tale of dying Casanova passing on his memories and powers of seduction to a young and ignorant pupil. Employing thick irony and playful language, the play is a gentle yet funny exploration of the relationships binding love and death, myth and reality, life and loss. This Casanova is a man whose truest love is for wisdom and wit. That is what made him such a great seducer of women's hearts.

Most of this is lost in this production which hammers superficially on the basic laugh reflexes activated by pratfalls and scenes of lovers discovered in compromising positions. It is true that the performance is punctuated by constant bursts of laughter -- the witty text cannot be eclipsed entirely -- but the payback for this is a sensation of depression over opportunities squandered. Zhitinkin and most of his cast repeatedly settle for the lowest common denominator in the comedy equation.

Of the actors only Vladimir Menshov -- most famous, perhaps, as the director who received the foreign-film Oscar for "Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears" in 1980 -- seems to have realized there are multiple layers at work in this play. As the aging and brooding Casanova, he delivers his lines -- many of them rich in clever and revelatory aphorisms -- with depth and understanding. In the context of this production, however, Menshov's success serves primarily to highlight how far off the mark everyone else is.

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© Строганов Александр, драматург: пьесы, драматургия, произведения для постановки в театре. Сайт драматурга Александра Строганова. Барнаул 2007-2012

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