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Exercising Demons

Studio Six strives for the ineffable with its Dostoevsky adaptation

Jefferson Jackson Steele
Vaz Santosham channels a Doestoevskyian devil.

By John Barry | Posted 4/7/2010

. . . the Itsy Bitsy Spider . . .

April 8-11 at the Theatre Project

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Vaz Santosham is an actor, but could pass as a bouncer. He's heavily built, dark-skinned, with short-cropped hair. His career path, to put it simply, should win him frequent-flyer miles. His parents, both doctors, were born in India. He was born in Baltimore, moved to White River, Ariz., for five years, and then returned to Lutherville and went to high school in Owings Mills, and then off to Wayne State University to earn a theater BFA. In 2002, he moved to Moscow, where he and several Wayne State classmates spent four years in training at Moscow Art Theatre School. He then moved to New York.

A few months ago he returned to the United States from Mumbai, where he played the Union Carbide factory manager in a movie about the Bhopal disaster starring Martin Sheen. And he has one warning for aspiring Bollywood actors from Baltimore: Don't hold your breath while waiting for your paycheck.

Now, he's back in Baltimore, at least for the moment. He's spending his nights earning a more dependable paycheck doing an industrial shoot at the Hopkins Homewood Campus for the Office of Research Integrity. After lunch, he's heading to the Theatre Project, where he's laying the groundwork for Studio Six's upcoming one-week performance of . . . the itsy bitsy spider . . ., an adaptation of Dostoevksy's nightmarish novel, The Possessed.

It's a convoluted résumé, but one that is oddly appropriate for someone who plays Nikolai Stavrogin, a peripatetic, unmoored character who returns suddenly to his provincial hometown after years spent abroad. For those who last read Dostoevsky while majoring in beer pong: Stavrogin is the looming center of The Possessed, who, in concern with his sidekick Pyotr Verkhovensky, turns a small town into a murderous hotbed of paranoia and fanaticism.

Don't worry. You won't have to read the 700-page novel to understand what's going on in spider. The play, which is directed by Russian director Alexandre Marine, is focused on Stavrogin's confession, an epistolary soul-baring expunged by censors when the book was published but now appended at the end of most translations in a chapter entitled "At Tikhon's." It's a cringe-inducing journey into the mind of Stavrogin, a bizarre, charismatic, tortured, and manipulative sexual predator who, even compared to most of Dostoevsky's characters, has serious issues.

But as Santosham makes clear, it's difficult to understand this production without understanding Studio Six. The 10-person ensemble has a bond that extends back to Russia, where most of them spent four years together as a group going through the rigorous gauntlet of the Moscow Art Theatre School (MXAT). That was where, in the late-19th/early-20th century, Constantin Stanislavski developed his acting method--a focus on mining the emotional core of characters' behavior.

The group stuck together after moving from Moscow to New York in 2005, and so far it has mounted six productions in U.S theaters. The itsy bitsy spider . . .--an innocuous name, but don't take the children, please--is the latest, and was conceived and directed by now Montreal-based Marine, who also received his training at MXAT. Spider had its debut production last November, at the Baryshnikov Performing Arts Center in New York.

If it sounds a little bit like a closed shop, it is. "We've got a core group that has been together since our school days," he says. "If our actors didn't go to school with us, they've worked with us with some of the same Russian directors, or they've been to training programs in Russia. They need to speak the same type of theatrical language. We're very careful about picking from outside people."

But being in a group, he emphasizes, doesn't mean that they're in lock step. "We've got unique personalities," he says. "We definitely fight a lot. You wouldn't be able to tell by watching our shows the amount of tension that goes into creating this."

And while describing the process of rehearsal, and the development of his own character, Santosham offers a peek into the sort of extended process that a Russian production goes through, especially without the six-week timeframe usually allotted to many American actors. "Sasha [their director] worked on the others a lot," Santosham says. "He created a world out of them, and then wanted me to find how I would live in it. When you first read the book, I had this tendency to read this stereotypical tough guy."

But then, he realized that Stavrogin is tormented by deep embarrassment at his own emptiness. "There were things that other people would be shocked at that he kind of takes pleasure in," he says. "So as the rehearsals developed, the character took pleasure out of these strange events."

Stavrogin, however, rides a fine line between pleasure and suffering. "And then suddenly, this thing is not fun," Santosham says. "It's not pleasurable. It's a low thing. It's a battle between pleasure and shame."

This sort of emotional fine line is what drives Studio Six and, indeed, most Stanislavski adherents. "Each performance is like a recurring nightmare," Santosham says. "It happens each time we go out there. Not in the same way. Each time the characters are a little different."

The focus, he says, is on the stage itself, where, as they develop, the characters actually create a world. "And that only happens when there's a lot of trust, a lot of attention to detail," Santosham says.

The bond of trust, according to Santosham, is what's missing in many American theater schools, where the focus is on individual development, and the dreaded cattle calls loom for actors after graduation. Studio Six developed under the tutelage of a single master (usually well-known actors) with several colleagues, who gradually molded the group into a unit while easing them into the theater world together. "By the time you've gotten through the program, they've already sent you on to colleagues," Santosham says. "You make a smooth transition into the theater."

The ultimate experience, for the actors and audience, is shared. "And when it works well, [the audience] should be drawn into the world," Santosham says. "All of us go through this play together, and when it's over, we've been through this whole thing together. It doesn't happen every night. We try every night, but when it really happens, it happens to the whole audience."

Slowly but surely, Studio Six is attracting attention. In New York, much of the attention came from the Russian community. Now as it travels to smaller cities, Studio Six hopes to spread the word. Before Baltimore, spider had a four-night performance at Bridgeport, Conn., in a somewhat iffy neighborhood, at $50 dollars a ticket. (The tickets for the Theatre Project are a more affordable $20--and even less for students and seniors.)

"The first night, about 10 people came," Santosham says. "The second night, word of mouth got around. People don't know exactly what to say. 'I don't know what happened'--that's the comment we keep getting. 'I want to talk to you about it, but I can't do it right now. I don't know what I'm feeling right now.' And I think that's good. That's what we're striving for."

Simply put, with all the competing theater ideologies put aside, Studio Six wants to bring the sense of a bond, emotional and physical, to its productions. Its members are still fishing around for a permanent space, but are considering some of the smaller cities. As this interview concluded, though, Santosham was looking forward to another long night on Homewood Campus, finishing his industrial shoot.

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