«Laughter in the Dark»

A one-woman play performed in near-darkness and a bitter tragicomedy about a divorced couple offer two starkly different examples of new Russian playwriting.

By John Freedman
The Moscow Times. Published: May 4, 2007

It would be hard to imagine two writers who resemble each other less than Nikolai Kolyada and the playwright and director known simply as Klim.

Kolyada, a native son of the Ural Mountains region, is arguably the most prolific and influential dramatist in Russia of the last 15 years. While he is based at his own Kolyada Theater in Yekaterinburg, he has long nurtured a fertile relationship with Moscow's Sovremennik Theater. Many of his plays about outcasts, losers and misguided dreamers have been staged there by artistic director Galina Volchek. Most recent is his tragicomedy "The Hare: A Love Story."

Klim, who hails from Ukraine but who has worked in Moscow, St.Petersburg and elsewhere, is also prodigiously productive. He, however, has had a harder time getting his plays produced. Most often they have been done at small, experimental theaters outside of Moscow. One of his most faithful champions is Alexei Yankovsky, a St.Petersburg director who has created numerous award-winning productions of Klim's plays at various venues. He recently brought a touring performance of his new production of "The Little Matchgirl" to Moscow's Meyerhold Center. "Matchgirl" is a production of the ASB Theater Workshop of St. Petersburg. Throughout the 1990s, Klim was best known as a probing, inventive director. A former student of Anatoly Vasilyev, his work was a magnet for derision in some quarters and enthusiastic praise in others. What few knew before the end of that decade was that he was also a remarkable writer. His plays, loosely based on classic literature, ancient myths, fairy tales and modern nonfiction, reveal a strikingly original voice and contemporary sensibility.

"The Little Matchgirl" is one of several monologues Klim has written for actresses. It draws some of its inspiration from the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale of the same title and, to some extent, from Clarissa Pinkola Estes' "Women Who Run With the Wolves." It is a challenging work for both actress and audience in that it is performed almost entirely on a pitch black stage. But as the actress says early on, "Love wants darkness, and what is a theatrical performance if not an act of love?"

The heroine of "Matchgirl" is a middle-aged actress who has achieved enough proficiency in her craft that she cannot help but doubt the value of her art. And in challenging her own place on stage, she confronts the audience, too, although she cannot imagine herself without them. Shortly before the intermission, she tells people they are free to go if her harangue has offended them. But in a contrite voice that overturns the energetic attack she has been unloading on people for nearly an hour, she adds: "I will be glad if you return after the break."

Virtually everyone did at the show I attended.

The text is an exquisite, smooth and eclectic mix of biography, memory, fantasy, theatrical theory, psychology and trickery. Intellectually sophisticated and stylistically complex, it is also as simple and transparent as a glass of water. Klim's actress is never condescending or obscure but always accessible and eager to communicate. Her memories of the impact Andersen's story had on her childhood segue into recollections of her relationship with her father and transform into ruminations on the nature of theater and acting.

The only light Klim intended to shed on the performer of his text were 60 brief flashes of matches being struck in the darkness at various intervals. Yankovsky tempered that austere stipulation by allowing the actress to play the first five minutes of the show in semi-illumination, then adding a few other such moments when she sets a piece of paper or a vessel filled with cognac on fire.

Tatyana Bondareva plays the actress as something of a mythical figure on a journey of doubt and discovery. Her voice is taut and borderline monotonous, its volume almost always maintained a notch or two above the norm. But for all the heightened intensity she brings to her part, Bondareva weaves in a myriad of nuances -- vulnerability, pain, sarcasm, haughtiness, self-deprecation, exhaustion and humor. The impact of her performance is made primarily through fluctuations in rhythm and tempo.

Served well by Yankovsky's direction and Bondareva's performance, "The Little Matchgirl" is an absorbing work. If you'll pardon the pun, it is a mystery to me why more people aren't clamoring to stage Klim's matchless plays.

Kolyada's territory is that of the melodrama, and it is often peopled by aging men and women whose lives have slipped away from them. They cling to their hopes and illusions although it does them little good. There is no way to generalize successfully about the writer's 90-plus plays, but this does apply to "The Hare." In it, a veteran entertainer thinks she has been invited to give a concert in a provincial town but in fact she has been lured there by her ex-husband, who has been unable to right his life ever since they separated years before.

Volchek's production emphasizes the play's kitschy underpinnings. Tanya (Nina Doroshina) is dressed in a wildly colorful costume replete with blackface and an Afro because her commission specified she imitate an African musician. Her goofy outfit (designed by Olga Reznichenko) looks even sillier in contrast to the aggressively drab hotel room provided by designer Nikolai Simonov. The disheveled Misha (Valentin Gaft) makes his first appearance in a stocking-mask as if he were a thief.

The early part of the play offers farce as Tanya and the audience are confused by Misha's identity and his purpose for showing up. But once he reveals he is her former husband, things take a dramatic turn. Neither has done anything in life that was as satisfying as when they used to play animals in a children's show. Slowly but surely, these shared memories pull the two together emotionally.

For all the sentimentality that Kolyada fills his plays with, however, he is too honest an observer of human nature to let emotion blind him. Misha and Tanya are vastly different, incontrovertibly set in their ways and too wrapped up in their individual worlds ever to rekindle the fire of lost love again for long.

Had Kolyada staged this play himself -- he frequently stages his own works in Yekaterinburg -- he likely would have found a way to serve up the meat of the tale on the tip of a serrated knife. One might even say that Kolyada-the-director harbors an aesthetically grounded cruel streak that allows him to reveal jarring paradoxes and unexpected truths in his traditional melodramas.

In her production at the Sovremennik, Volchek steered clear of danger and darkness, preferring to highlight the folksy, amiable nature of two people who cannot come together. I rather doubt this shows off Kolyada's play in the most advantageous light.

Источник: http://context.themoscowtimes.com/story/176360/

- © 2007