Memory is an active muse, as demanding as an Olympics gymnastics coach, in “Opus No. 7,” a suitably unforgettable work from theDmitry Krymov Lab and the Moscow Theater of Dramatic Arts. In this thrillingly inventive production, which runs at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn through Sunday, performers in search of lost time find themselves faced with a herculean array of obstacles and chimera.
They are beckoned by (and sometimes obliged to wrestle with) bodiless phantom arms that slide into the sleeves of empty jackets. They are blasted by a gale-force, stage-blanketing storm of confetti, bearing the names and images of nearly forgotten ancestors.
Most dauntingly, in the show’s second half, they are forced to do the bidding of steely, capricious Mother Russia, a figure who looms large, very large, in the form of a 12-foot puppet with a bosom as big as the Urals. And that’s not to mention the poor guy who has to function as a human chandelier. Or that little composer chap — What’s his name? Oh yeah, Shostakovich — who is lanced, roasted, shot at and turned into a taxidermy specimen.
Sentimentality takes many forms, but they’re rarely as invigorating as those delivered by “Opus No. 7,” a genre-blending performance piece in two, hourlong parts. Mr. Krymov, who conceived and directed the show, began his career as a set designer. And he brings both an artist’s and an artisan’s skills to this show, in which the actors use paint, postures, voices, saws, hammers and nails to reconfigure an elusive past.
“Genealogy,” the first section, is a spirited, lyrical séance of sorts, in which the ghosts of long-disappeared Russian Jews are summoned into being. The blank, begrimed white space that has been made of the St. Ann’s stage doesn’t at first look like an auspicious site for such explorations. But then you don’t know what’s in those grungy buckets at center stage, or what’s lurking behind the paneled wall, or just how convertible the black concert clothes worn by the performers are.
These actor-singer-musicians use black paint, knives, staplers, hard candy and shredded paper to ascend creative DIY heights that Martha Stewart never dreamed of. (Vera Martynova is the stage designer.) Aided by projected images that seem to hover between dimensions — and the witty mystical music of Alexander Bakshi (love the name-checking scat number) — the performers suggest bewildered, tenacious pioneers trying to hack their way into a tangled collective past.
“Genealogy” tingles with the sensation we sometimes experience going through boxes of old family memorabilia, when we try to will ourselves into feeling what the people in faded photographs felt when the pictures were taken. If we all had the enterprise and resourcefulness of Mr. Krymov and company, we might come a little closer to achieving that communion.
The second part, designed by Maria Tregubova, is a relatively straightforward allegory, though none the less ingenious in its execution. The subject is the great composer and pianist Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-75). Played by the impish and indefatigable Anna Sinyakina, Shostakovich is presented as an eternally beleaguered little man, struggling to create — and to stay alive — in a Soviet culture that did not take kindly to independent-minded artists.
Mr. Krymov has said that his vision of Shostakovich was partly inspired by Charlie Chaplin’s beleaguered Little Tramp. There is certainly a Chaplin-esque verve in the way Ms. Sinyakina does physical battle with pianos, which take on a multitude of incarnations (a giant sawhorse piano, a fire-breathing piano, an army of battered metal pianos).
Overseeing little Shostakovich’s trials and tribulations is the immense female puppet, who is at least twice his size, and whose attitudes toward her protégé range from that of a fond, protective mother to a gun-wielding military assassin.
While the recorded voice of the real Shostakovich is heard, spouting Soviet propaganda, this work is no head-shaking satire of an artist who buckled under to the state. Or not only that. Deploying comic devices, Mr. Krymov makes us feel the human tragedy of one gifted man’s life. He reminds us that in trying to recapture the past, empathy may be the most essential tool of all.
BEN BRANTLEY, NY Times, 14.01.2013