John Freedman «Laying Down the Law»

The Moscow Times 22.02.2008

The Theater Yunogo Zritelya adapts Gogol’s satirical story «The Nose» for the stage, while the Maly Theater puts on a didactic play by Leo Tolstoy.

Russian literature in the 19th century gave the world a slightly new way of thinking about mankind’s place on earth. Alexander Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Ivan Turgenev and a host of others invented nothing that had never existed before, of course. But the sensibilities they brought to the questions that had plagued men and women for at least 2,000 — and probably 60,000 — years were unlike any that had come before.

Russian writers of that age were hardly a coherent unit working in a single style. Pushkin’s elegance and wit were light years from Dostoevsky’s grueling psychological explorations. Yet even these vastly different writers shared a common understanding, and trust in the wisdom, of the hard truths that life in Russia made them privy to. Russian literature of the 19th century usually told a tale of the human spirit struggling to respond to the demands and restrictions that earthly existence puts upon it. The Russian mix of the divine and the profane produced a volatile concoction that has not lost its grip on our imagination.

Gogol and Tolstoy make a curious pair. The works of the former often reveled in grotesque, ridiculing satire, while the novels, stories and plays of the latter were usually thinly-veiled efforts to achieve an exalted, God’s-eye view of the world. And yet, Gogol was moved no less than Tolstoy to train his gaze on the sublime and the eternal, while Tolstoy, no less than Gogol, had no illusions about how low human depravity can sink. The paradoxes that comprised the essence of these writers are evident in two recent productions — Tolstoy’s «The Power of Darkness» at the Maly Theater and Gogol’s «The Nose» at the Theater Yunogo Zritelya.

I can’t help but quote a young woman I chanced to overhear as I was leaving the theater after the premiere of «The Nose» last week. She turned to her male partner and asked point blank, «What do you think Gogol was trying to say in ‘The Nose?’ He surely was trying to say something.» I didn’t hear what the woman’s friend said in response, but I rather wish I had. I had been asking myself that same question for the last 90 minutes.

«The Nose» is an intriguing, even weird, little tale about Platon Kovalyov, who wakes up one morning to find his nose has disappeared from his face. In its place — «there is nothing there at all.» That is more than enough to plunge this unrepentantly smug government bureaucrat into paroxysms of depression, but imagine his state of mind when he discovers his former nose is stalking the city in the guise of an arrogant dandy. By the time the papers get hold of the story, Kovalyov is utterly destroyed — the police have abused him, reporters have humiliated him and the shaky-handed barber who may have done the deed, and who found the severed nose in a fresh-baked loaf of bread, is on the verge of completely losing his marbles.

So much, I guess, for the idea that neatly ordered conceptions of welfare, happiness and security — to say nothing of superiority — are an inalienable birthright. Or, to paraphrase the great 19th-century dramatist Alexander Sukhovo-Kobylin, «Believe everything you hear, for anything is possible.»

Making his professional debut, director Andrei Nedelkin showed a flair for color, action, inventiveness and humor. He packed the story with quotes from various works by Gogol, but kept the recognizable plot of «The Nose» moving forward briskly. His cast of four, two of whom play four roles, displays admirable agility and an aptitude for physical transformation. Roman Shalyapin’s pre-disaster Kovalyov resembles a Greek god, while he is a nervous wreck afterwards. Yevgeny Tkachuk’s portrayal of Kovalyov’s slothful servant Ivan has nothing in common with his haughty interpretation of the Nose as it makes its rounds through the city. Richard Bondarev is a quintessentially obsequious drunken barber and a typically high-and-mighty police inspector. Natalya Zlatova easily changes from the barber’s plucky wife into a grizzled, cigarette-chewing newspaperwoman. Designer Maria Krivtsova outfitted the small space in the white room at the Theater Yunogo Zritelya with doors, windows and an eclectic assortment of small objects that remind us that the action takes place in St. Petersburg and allow scenes to unfold indoors or outdoors without making set changes.

This fast-paced, attractive and funny show is a pleasure to watch. Therein, however, lies what may be its greatest weakness. I didn’t always feel Gogol’s horrified stare at the cruelly changeable nature of life coming through the fun and games. Yes, it was there in the eyes of Shalyapin’s Kovalyov and broken gait of Bondarev’s barber. But it wasn’t always there in the show as a whole, which impressed me primarily as a lighthearted, entertaining romp through a strange story. What this show does, it does well. What it doesn’t always do is reveal the full scope of what Gogol might have been trying to tell us.

Tolstoy was never one to be ambiguous about what he was saying. He was, and still is, the great moralist of Russian literature. Everyone knows how Tolstoy fell in love with Anna Karenina when he was creating her for his novel of the same name. What not everyone considers is that when he felt Anna began giving herself up to sin too eagerly, he, as her creator, threw her under the wheels of a train and killed her. Tolstoy had a highly developed sense of good and evil, right and wrong. Perhaps this is why this truly great novelist was, at best, a mediocre playwright. Theater thrives on ambiguity and suggestion.

In «The Power of Darkness,» Nikita is a brash young man who believes the world is his playground. He abuses women, has a hand in poisoning his rich employer, is a party to the murder of a newborn child, and, most important, sees no reason to answer for any of this. His father, a simple old man and the character into whom Tolstoy pours his own moral indignation, effectively disowns his son until the moment when Nikita’s crimes come to a head.

Under the direction of Yury Solomin, all of the play’s black-and-white aspects are enhanced. The ordained forces of good and evil do battle until the former wins. Rising above this among the cast are Alexei Kudinovich, who is convincingly complex as Nikita’s outraged father, Akim, and Maria Andreyeva, as the independent-minded orphan girl, Marina, whom Nikita seduces and discards.

Tolstoy was too great a writer to create mere stick figures even in the least successful of his works, but everyone in this play seems to wear huge «plus» or «minus» signs above their heads as they stalk the stage. In the end, «The Power of Darkness» resembles a Sunday-school lecture more than a work of dramatic art.