Dmitry Krymov’s In Their Own Words: Eugene Onegin
As we walk into the the theater ushers distribute dainty bows made out of tissue paper so that when the auditorium settles, it looks like it’s full of children (small, large, some with grey hair and wrinkles) dressed up by their parents for a school outing. Strangers smile at each other from across the aisles in shy anticipation. In Krymov’s theater for children, adults watch their adult selves and their child selves together, and the children watch their adults: a theater that estranges by endearing us to ourselves. Our guides to the Russian classic is a motley group of Pushkin aficionados, a Frenchwoman in a baseball cap over her grey braid (Natalia Gorchakova), a Finn — a long-haired musician type in a white suit and military boots (Maksim Maminov), a Prof. Vlk from Brno University (Sergei Melkonian) and a porcupine-haired Russian ballet teacher on enormous platform shoes (Anna Siniakina). They are parents, and each brings his puppet child to the theater. As with every boring school lecture, the parents begin with definitions: what are the parts of the theater. But unlike the backstage and the curtain, the most important part of the theater remains not told but shown: the parents are playing, keeping one small feather hovering above their heads as one of them or another runs forward to explain something about theater. And one gets the sense that this feather stands for the very ineffable mechanism of theater: the suspense of disbelief.
From where I sat it was easy to watch the faces of the children, which were alternately fascinated or suspicious — or confused. Try to explain to a child that the play is not just Eugene Onegin but how how people talk about Eugene Onegin and Pushkin. But likely some of the older children recognized in the parents’ arduous efforts some familiar scenes: how their teachers and parents drone on about the “Russian soul” and “Russian winter” and “Russian spleen” (русская хандра). Unlike the classroom lecture, though, in Krymov’s theater everything is broken into parts that turn out to be quite magical. Thus the melancholy and apathy of Russian khandra (spleen) is helpfully illustrated with a suitcase full of grabage and farm instruments (“nail scissors,” “toothbrushes,” “brushes for moustaches,” “brushes for brushes for moustaches”) that no longer interest one suffering from khandra. Who suffered from it? The ballet teacher rattles off a list of Russian luminaries. And now, the parent team abruptly declares, we will explain what is the Russian winter! A half-dozen diminutive volunteers are recruited — you can see the children who grew a little sleepy with all the talking and explanation spring back to life. One is representing the dog Zhuchka sitting in a sled, another is the little red-faced boy with a bandaged finger, a couple of kids are given cattails to shake while, in front of them, the overeager Finn, wearing a red felt bag on his military boot, pretends to be a red-footed duck slipping on the icy pond. Over this whole scene the Czech professor throws snowflakes, roaring “RRRRRUSSIAN VINTER!!!!”
In literary raptures the parent team tells anecdotes from Pushkin’s life. How the great poet longed to embrace his friend Pushchin over the fence that separated them in Mikhailovsk! Anyway, “Now we will discuss the uncle on the table”: the longish Finn is made to lie flat between two chairs with a burning candle in his hands while the others mourn him — not reenacting but indicating a scene in Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin.
Representing Russian peasants, the production’s stage hands, musicians, theater administrators sullenly crowd onto the backstage in their outerwear to stare at pig-tailed, snot-nosed Tatiana, who “doesn’t understand a word of Russian, not a word, though she has a very Russian soul.” That Tan’ka is a handful, she is sending her bearded nanny (played by the Brno prof, his stomach pillow pushed up to signify a chest) to open and close the window, she is demanding a gigantic table, which the nanny has to carry on her back, so that the child can write her love letter to Onegin. Scratching her toes, her ears, her braids, digging in her nose, Tatiana writes the letter mostly by holding her her quill with one elegant, hairy leg. When the letter explodes with glitter in Onegin’s hands, he (the Finn) promptly shows Tan’ka his spleen suitcase. But now the Finn is needed to play soon-dead Lensky, so the team recruits a very tall and baby-faced spectator to play Onegin. He comes to Tatiana’s name-day party, is told to look into the gift bag for Tatiana, smiling anxiously, takes out a gun, at which point shots ring out, crows cry, and Lensky the Finn dies.
And now that you know what is a Russian winter and an uncle on the table, the Pushkin afficionados will explain how time works. Thus, the final chapters of Pushkin’s poema are represented using a total of three machines with gear systems, cranks, and conveyor belts.
The Onegin puppet turns around only at the very end of his conveyor — a miniature tragedy that couldn’t be more poignantly represented than by these creaking machines and stuck-on toys. Tatiana’s monologue, abruptly started and ended, is given by the retired ballet teacher, and just as abruptly the Brno professor transforms into Pushkin and is shot, exactly like Lensky. Lying in a pool of red food coloring, dead Pushkin offers a “Mishka” candy to every child and adult that walks by until he’s out of candy, and then he just shakes people’s hands.
Next up? The Krymov children’s theater series will retell Chekhov’s Sakhalin Island, Gogol’s Dead Souls — and Marx’s Das Kapital. Your humble plot-spoiler will be attending all of these productions if I can help it.
This is Krymov’s second new play this year about Russians and Russianness. The earlier premiere is a sort of improvisation on the subject of that quintessential Russian ritual — mushroom hunting. Like In Their Own Words: Eugene Onegin, Russian Blues is touching and humorous, artfully composed out of etudes that were clearly enormously fun for the actors and the director. Here’s John Freedman’s blog about it.
Out of this childlike fascination, sincerity and play, the director recovers some authentic connection to the politicized and hollowed out idea of Russianness. But with Onegin I think something else is going on as well. Last theater season saw the government’s concentrated effort to limit the more audacious interpretations of the classics, a phenomenon that I have written about from Moscow. The directors Konstantin Bogomolov and Kirill Serebrennikov, who do some of the most interesting political theater in Russia, came under fire and publicly criticized the scrutiny that they face from Ministry of Culture officials, sponsors, etc. Krymov has avoided the same attention and controversy, though he staged an Addams Family-style production of Nikolai Ostrovsky’s Late Love and a downright feminist play based on Ivan Bunin’s Dark Alleys, which all of you must see. To my mind it was the most exciting play in Moscow last year. Krymov’s Onegin declares that the reception — as comical as a game of broken telephone, a bit embarrassing and endearing at the same time — is just as much a part of the play as the original text. A courageous stand for literary history, at a time when many people would rather pretend that poets were never killed in Russia (/those that were are worthless) or that all they do there is die, neglected and impoverished.
Photos: 1. Tatiana writes a letter to Onegin. 2. Parents explain the theater. 3. Time and grief according to Pushkin, explained with conveyor belts.