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The Russians are Coming...

...to Baltimore stages in the coming year

Photos Courtesy John Freedman
Golden Mask Festival attendees (from top) Olga Mukhina, John Freedman (Moscow Times), Maxim Kurochin, and Vyacheslav Durnenkov.

By John Barry | Posted 4/29/2009

You know you're at a real international theater festival when they force you to give them your coat. As I walked toward the elevator of the Meyerhold Center to meet my team at the Golden Mask Festival, the woman at the desk told me in Russian--and then in halting English--how it was done in Moscow. I would give her my coat. She would give me a circular piece of plastic with a number in return. If I ever wanted the coat back, I would have to keep the plastic.

This wasn't my first theater festival. It wasn't my first visit to Russia, either. But it was the first time I'd ever gone to Russia to watch theater. I had been there 17 years before, but--and, I admit it--the language and the memories had gotten a little fuzzy.

Things had changed since 1992. That was when being an American in Moscow involved being toasted, getting toasted, and being asked for advice about, say, import-export businesses or derivatives trading. By 2009, the drinking was still in fashion, but asking Americans for advice wasn't. I wasn't there to tell the Russians how to do their job.

I was there to watch plays. The Golden Mask Theatre Festival is now in its 15th year and it turns Moscow not just into a theater town, but also into a sort of nexus for other provincial theaters scattered throughout Russia's teeming theater world. Some of those came from places such as Novosibirsk, Ekaterinburg, Mongolia, and Yakutsk--a place I'd only known as a player of Risk.

The Russian Case, a one-week festival within the Golden Mask Festival, was aimed specifically at giving 80 theater-working guest foreigners a sample of Russian theater. The mass of invitees included journalists from Latvia, theater personalities from Holland, actors from Armenia, directors from Bulgaria, and people from Baltimore.

There were, in fact, more people--six--from Baltimore than from any other postindustrial city in decline. Single Carrot Theatre's J. Buck Jabaily and his actress wife Giti Lynn both came from Baltimore, as did director Peter Wray and David White, both from Towson University's theater department. They had been brought over through the efforts of the Baltimore-based Center for International Theatre Development (CITD). That organization is run by Baltimore's own Philip Arnoult, a white-haired master of networking, who for over 20 years has focused on linking theaters, critics, and actors internationally. For this particular project, called New Directors-New Voices, he has enlisted Towson University's Department of Theatre Arts in a four-year project to introduce young Russian playwrights to the United States. Since I've written about Baltimore theater, I was invited as an embedded Baltimore critic, no strings attached. (CITD paid for my tickets.)

Everybody met in the Meyerhold Center. Think of a theater in your city named after a visionary local director--maybe the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre. In the room that we were herded into, Meyerhold's photographs lined the walls. (That, too, is true at Spotlighters.) We see Vsevolod Meyerhold as a young student in the 1890s, as an actor in the Moscow Art Theatre, as a director in the early Soviet Era. The last photograph shows him in a mug shot taken in the Lubyanka, in 1939. He was shot in 1940.

That's where Meyerhold and Herman part ways. The fact that anyone in the upper reaches of government actually attended the theater often enough to be offended by Meyerhold's deviation from the Stanislavsky method is a perverse tribute to the power of drama in Russia.

Things, of course, have changed since Stalin's Terror. Vladimir Putin spends less time going to the theater and more time tweaking the television news, but theater is still a big deal in a city with 120 theaters, and it's under the political radar. The most notable feature: The seats are full of people who aren't getting senior discounts. Playwright Olga Mukhina noted that this was partly because men in Russia, thanks to their drinking/smoking habits, have a life expectancy of 57. But it's also because twentysomethings go to the theater--and not just to see their friends act.

Once assembled in the Meyerhold Center, the Baltimore contingent, like everyone else at the Russian Case, was handed a small plastic packet, with the lists of 16 shows that they were expected to see. That qualifies as a smorgasbord. But--to be cautionary--just because you've eaten everything on your plate, doesn't mean that you know much about the restaurant. So, I'll talk about what we learned from Russia with a caveat: It's a small piece of the pie.

Even so, I can divide the material we saw into five subsets. First, there are the masters: the four or five top white-haired directors who are the big dogs of Russian theater and eventually get theaters named after them. We got to see Lev Dodin, from Petersburg, whose Love's Labours Lost featured, along with intricate choreography, a dove flying out of a hat.

Then, there are the puppet theaters. Puppet theaters are serious affairs in Russia. The most impressionable was Leningradka, an affecting palimpsest of news reels, puppets, people, and even flashes forward, all drawn from the siege of Leningrad during World War II.

There was also theater from the provinces. That included the visionary, and even a little off-his-rocker director Nikolai Kolyada, who--the morning after starring in his own rowdy, hip-hop-infused version of King Lear--described in salty language his own struggles for survival in Ekaterinberg, a Baltimore-esque post-industrial city in the Urals.

Then, there was theater that isn't just theater: SounDrama Theatre, a category in itself, drew on Gogol's short-story collection Evenings From a Farm Near Dikanka--and also reminded people that just because you're playing a cello doesn't mean you can't dance. And there was laboratory theater, featuring the two-part Opus 7 by Dmitri Krymov, which included one part about the Holocaust, featuring a snow-storm of newspaper clippings, and the second part about Dmitri Shostakovich playing bumper cars with steel pianos. (Note: If these descriptions sound terse, that's because they're hard to describe. Both of these were impressive.)

Then, there were the young playwrights, a group in their late twenties and early thirties (or so) who started out in the mid-'90s as members of the "New Drama" movement, when young writers, responding to a dearth of new plays, began to move on to DIY playwrighting. At first, they were ignored and mocked; then, briefly, they became fashionable and even shocking. Such notoriety didn't really translate into commercial success, but it has prevented them from having to sell out. They've also become better at writing plays. Now, there's a process of weeding out, and the best ones are touring internationally.

That's where Baltimore comes in.

In 2010, several of these young Russian Playwrights, thanks to the networking efforts of the Center for International Theatre Development, will be coming to a theater near you. Yuri Klavdiev, whose Martial Arts and I am the MachineGunner will be directed by Towson University's White next year, was featured on the cover of an anthology wearing a spiked dog collar and looking like an angry punk rocker. In person, he wasn't wearing the dog collar, but he still had the edge. Olga Mukhina--whose Tanya-Tanya will be translated by John Freeman, adapted by New York-based playwright Kate Moira Ryan, and produced at Towson--has worked in music management. Her melodic ruminations on young love (or lack thereof) in Moscow retain a little of the trans-disco beat. Think of Baltimore's Red Square on a Friday night, just after the DJ kicks in. Vyacheslav Durnenkov, a playwright and one-time car factory worker, and older brother of Mikhail Durnenkov, another New Drama playwright, is working on a production of Frozen in Time, to be directed by Towson University's Wray. And Single Carrot Theater is planning to produce the Presnyakov Brothers' Playing the Victim.

Maksym Kurochkin, not to be confused with the Russian oligarch of the same name who died in a hail of bullets in 2007, is a wryly funny writer whose Kitchen--in which a cleaning woman gets mixed up in Wagner's Nibelung--became one of Moscow's big New Drama hits last year. This year, his Vodka, Fucking and Television is slated for a staged reading at Towson. All of these playwrights spent much of the festival meeting with Baltimore writers, directors, and actors, all in preparation for up-and-coming productions in Baltimore.

And it felt like it was over before it began. After five days and 16 shows, Baltimore got its first open bar, at the European Union, located within viewing distance of the Kremlin. We received our T-shirts and coffee cups, and within 24 hours, we'd be back at BWI, wondering if we'd ever really been gone. There was some slack-jawed admiration about how The Russians Do It but, honestly, recapitulating it would be a little boring. There was one message that rang clear, though, delivered by Russian nonprofits, both in the big cities and out in provinces: Instead of circling the arts community wagons, it's time to make the connections.

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