John Freedman «Devastating ‘Meek One’ Dissects Marriage Life»

The Moscow Times 12.11.2009

Fyodor Dostoevsky has been an important author for the Theater Yunogo Zritelya over the last two decades. Until now that was because of the interest Kama Ginkas harbors in the works of the great 19th-century novelist. Ginkas produced four major dramatizations of Dostoevsky in Moscow between 1988 and 2006.

For the moment at least, the baton has passed on to another. While Ginkas was recently busy rehearsing a new production of “Medea,” his former student Irina Keruchenko unveiled a production of Dostoevsky’s short story, “The Meek One.” It plays in the same small “white room” on the theater’s third floor, made famous by Ginkas’ productions of “K.I. from ‘Crime’” and “Pushkin. Duel. Death.”

Keruchenko established her reputation with distinctive productions of Yury Klavdiyev’s “I Am the Machine Gunner,” Martin McDonagh’s “The Cripple of Inishmaan” and Vasily Sigarev’s “Phantom Pains” at other theaters. “The Meek One,” designated by the author as a “fantastic tale” of the tragically mismatched marriage between two seemingly timid people, marks Keruchenko’s debut at the Theater Yunogo Zritelya.

Another factor in this show bears links to Ginkas. Igor Gordin, featuring prominently in numerous Ginkas productions over the last decade, takes on the role of the highly complex husband. Gordin is superb, even spectacular, in the gray, understated subtlety of his performance.

What Dostoevsky called “fantastic,” someone else might call “clinical.” This work’s dissection of the psychological battles arising between two humans seeking to put the planets of their lives into similar orbits is downright devastating. In all seriousness, I can’t deny myself the pleasure of quoting from the refrain of Elvis Costello’s “Two Little Hitlers,” a pop song that described this very battle nearly 100 years after Dostoevsky took it on:

Two little Hitlers will fight it out until

One little Hitler does the other one’s will…

The difference is that in Dostoevsky the knock-down, drag-out struggle usually remains concealed beneath the facade of proper decorum. The drinking of tea, the smiles, the helping on with a coat — there are a myriad of details that insist everything is just as it should be. The reality, however, is that two humans are sinking into a mire that they cannot get out of.

You can put that in the past tense, actually, since the show and story begin at the wake of the wife who committed suicide by throwing herself out the window.

Everything Dostoevsky narrates and everything Keruchenko portrays on stage is the immediate aftermath of the tragedy. The stunned, uncomprehending husband struggles with his thoughts and memories, bringing his wife back to life for brief moments that border on delirium. Even when tipping over into the territory of madness, however, this meticulous, limited man with an inflated opinion of himself does everything in his power to remain in control.

Control is what brought him to ruin, of course.

He believed his low-born, poverty-stricken wife owed him her life because he stooped to marry her. The bright, perky young woman, played with an aching, sparrow-like tenderness by Yelena Lyamina, slowly but surely dims and pales under the hawk-like, mentoring gaze of her husband.

What he cannot do legitimately is reproach her. In the meek, submissive persona that she dons in self-defense, she never betrays her husband in any way. Even when a potential first lover turns up at her door and her husband eavesdrops on their conversation, the wife is irreproachable.

This, perhaps, infuriates her husband more than anything. Desperate to blame her for their unhappiness, frantic to acquit himself in the circumstances of her death — he has no choice but to admit that he was the guilty one in all.

The tortured, painful journey taken by the couple is offset in comic and humane tones in the person of the maid Lukerya. Marina Zubanova plays her as a down-home, common-sense figure who is capable of giving the lie to the husband’s sick mental meanderings with a withering, sarcastic glance, or a hitch of her dress at the waist.

The essentially actionless performance has a muted musical underpinning, but what really strikes the ears and mind are incidental sounds — shoes squeaking on floors, chairs creaking when sat upon and fingers scratching at windows.

Designer Maria Utrobina provided the austere setting for the deceptively simple show — a narrow bed, a tiny table and a big, clunky grandfather clock.

“The Meek One” is not for the faint at heart, but then marriage isn’t either.