Searching for Rhythm in a Director’s Complex Universe. PHILLIP LUTZJUNE

2016, The New York Times

 Slumped in his chair, Dmitry Krymov seemed the personification of the brooding Russian director. On the first day of the third week of rehearsals, his new play, “The Square Root of Three Sisters,” had just completed its first run-through. And with less than three weeks of rehearsals left before its world premiere, it was still very much a work in progress.

“I want to say something good, but it’s difficult to do today,” he told the cast and crew through an interpreter at Yale’s Iseman Theater, in New Haven, where the production will run June 21 through 25.
The play, Mr. Krymov said, still lacked the kind of rhythm that would transform it from a nascent script punctuated by improvised exercises — ones, he allowed, that were often brilliantly executed by the cast of students and recent graduates of the Yale School of Drama — into a coherent work of art.
“When you don’t have that particular rhythm,” he said, relaxing in a lounge after the rehearsal, “you understand cerebrally, but you cannot understand through your heart.”
Despite Mr. Krymov’s penchant for intellectualizing — at Moscow’s experimental Dmitry Krymov Lab, which he heads, meditating on the art of theater comes with the territory — the human heart and the thwarting of its needs is his subject in “Square Root.” And that subject, he said, is embedded in Chekhov’s plays, like “Three Sisters,” from which he draws.
“It’s the formula of the human desire to be happy and the voice that tells you, ‘Not today,’” he said.
But “Square Root” is hardly formulaic. While it is populated by recognizable characters from “Three Sisters” and other Chekhov works, its narrative is not a linear retelling of any of them. Rather, it’s a distilling of their elements, which are “accessed impressionistically” and “condensed into moments,” said Liz Diamond, chairwoman of the drama school’s directing department and a collaborator on the project.
At the rehearsal, those moments could be enjoyed on the level of spectacle. In one, the action proved explosive when Julian Elijah Martinez, as Captain Solyony of the Russian Army, devoured the scenery in a hyperbolic display of rage against Baron von Tuzenbach, his competition for the affections of Irina, the youngest of the three sisters.
In another moment, the mood turned poignant when the army, which had provided solace and suitors for the lonely sisters, was banished from their country village — stripping away everything the women had come to value. Not least among those was the exiled Colonel Vershinin, with whom Masha, the middle sister, had found love.
Such moments played as isolated adaptations of scenes from “Three Sisters.” But shaping them into a singular piece of theater was complicated by the demands of Mr. Krymov’s universe, in which the action operates on multiple levels and every word or gesture reflects both the characters and the actors playing them, said Luke Harlan, the assistant director.
Mr. Krymov’s play is about the perils of making art. “It’s a story,” he said, “about a company of actors who are coming into this space and creating in front of our eyes their version of ‘Three Sisters’ that they must show to us today, right now. And while they’re trying to do that, they’re essentially being kicked out of the theater.”
The main instrument by which Mr. Krymov advanced this conceit was The Voice. Played by Mr. Harlan wielding a megaphone offstage (the final production will employ prerecorded tapes), The Voice amounted to an authoritarian figure intervening at inopportune moments and dashing dreams along the way.
“Attention: The plane is leaving on Platform 5,” the disembodied Voice intoned, ushering the soldiers, and the actors who played them, out of the picture. “Change Mashas,” it bellowed, compelling the actress Annie Hägg to supplant Annalise Lawson in the role of Masha, which in turn prompted Niall Powderly, as the departing Vershinin, to plead for “My Masha” — not Ms. Hägg’s impostor — as he was swept away with his brigade.
“It gets into the meta-theatrical area,” Mr. Harlan said. “Not only are you getting moved away and you have to leave this theater; you can’t even play your part anymore.”
Mr. Krymov acknowledged that his multilevel approach could be difficult to assimilate. Even Ms. Diamond, who was first dazzled by Mr. Krymov’s work on a trip to Russia in 2006 and brought him to Yale, said she required a “Eureka moment” to grasp it fully.
Ms. Lawson said that she and Mr. Powderly, with whom she had previously worked in other productions at Yale, were still having trouble distinguishing between their own feelings and those of their characters in “Square Root.”
“Are these theatrical personas of actors exploring a little flirtation?” she asked. “When do the lines start blurring?”
Mr. Krymov, who has also worked as a set designer and an abstract painter, said he hoped his unconventional aesthetic would become clearer as he added some of the phantasmagorical lighting, video and other effects for which he is known. The effects, he said, would be added in the run-up to the opening.
But at the rehearsal, his focus was on establishing the play’s rhythm. He often turned to the production staff to sharpen the cues for The Voice and the music — Shostakovich’s haunting Waltz No. 2 became a recurring backdrop — quickening the pace and adding urgency to the story.
Given Mr. Krymov’s pedigree — his father, the renowned director Anatoly V. Efros, had been subject to Soviet censors — it was no surprise that he felt that urgency. He expressed concern about the threat to creative freedom in today’s Russia, and in that context The Voice could easily be seen as the heavy hand of the state.
“It’s your fate, your destiny,” he said of The Voice. “Sometimes you’re allowed to do what you want to do, you’re allowed to be part of the profession you’ve chosen. Sometimes without any explanation you’re kicked out. It’s something that’s above us all.”
“The Square Root of Three Sisters” by Dmitry Krymov is being performed June 21 to 25 at 8 p.m. at the Iseman Theater, 1156 Chapel Street, New Haven. Tickets: $50 and $70; in advance, $45 and $65.
A version of this article appears in print on June 19, 2016, on page CT7 of the New York edition with the headline: Searching for Rhythm in a Director’s Complex Universe.
Students and recent graduates of the Yale School of Drama rehearse Dmitry Krymov’s “The Square Root of Three Sisters” in New Haven, Conn. Credit Christopher Capozziello for The New York Times
Dmitry Krymov, the director. Credit Christopher Capozziello for The New York Times

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