An impish woman sweeps the stage clean as the audience takes its seat for Opus No 7. She lifts the broom to discover it is an aerial that can pick up distant radio static from another era.
Russian director, artist and set designer Dmitry Krymov says he likes to conjure theatre from thin air.
In fact, he and his actors create it from sets, props and pots of paint on stage in Genealogy, the first half of this two-part show about ancestral loss and Holocaust shadows.
Never has a theatre set come so alive with character and meaning, as blank white panels are slashed from behind to disgorge a pair of glasses, a pile of shoes, or an entire body, like a breech birth.
Black paint hurled by the actors at the walls is graffiti-enhanced to resemble a row of Orthodox Jews, their side locks improvised from shoelaces. Coats stapled to walls are suddenly inhabited — again from behind — by gesturing arms and legs.
As suddenly, we are showered in a blizzard of paper holding the names of lost ancestors.
The confidence with which Krymov allows time and silence for each phenomenon is striking, like actor Mikhail Umanets walking a red pair of toddler’s shoes towards a larger shoe pile. Wordless and poignant in the extreme.
The seven actors are like a lost and playful tribe behind a wall, while the ghosts of long-disappeared Russian Jews appear and a uniformed SS guard strolls around the perimeter.
Krymov’s incredible dramatic virtuosity is more easily grasped in the play’s second part, a different take on bloody regimes through the figure of Opus No 7’s composer Dmitri Shostakovich. Diminutive Anna Sinyakina brilliantly plays Shostakovich as a Chaplinesque little man struggling to create music — and stay alive — in a Soviet culture that persecuted those who resisted.
He is nurtured by a big-bosomed giant Mother Russia puppet who then monstrously turns on her pint-sized prodigy.
The reedy voice of the real Shostakovich is heard, earnestly spouting Soviet propaganda, while around him a three-ringed circus of well-drilled henchmen plays out. Krymov’s extraordinary ability to speak volumes through wordless sequences peaks in the casual, even comical scenes between oppressor and victim.
One regime enforcer dangles a chandelier in midair while doubling as the composer’s torturer, until they both collapse on the ground to share a cigarette.
Opus No 7; Dmitry Krymov Lab. ABC Studios. Perth Festival. February 21.
Tickets: $25-$85. Bookings: 1300 795 012 or online. Duration: 2hr 40min, including interval. Until Sunday.
Photo: A scene from the remarkable Opus No 7, in which the theatre set comes alive with character and meaning. Picture: Rachael Barrett