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The Russian mother as monster

The Moscow New Generation Theater makes its U.S. debut with two exceptional productions at the Bard College SummerScape festival.

August 09, 2003|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

ANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON, N.Y. — A Russian mother can be a special kind of monster. I know. Wednesday night, for 90 barely bearable minutes that felt like a whole childhood, I had one. So did 87 other shaken-up spectators.

The occasion was the American debut of one of Russia's most daring theater companies, Moscow New Generation Theater. The play is "K.I. From 'Crime' "; the mother, Katerina Ivanovna, a minor figure in Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment." And the dauntless, soul-devastating actress who made us all vulnerable children again (though nearly everyone in the audience looked older than her) is Oksana Mysina, also making her American debut.

The ostensible reason Bard College invited MTYZ, as the company is known in Moscow, to America is because the school's SummerScape festival is built around the great Czech composer Janacek, and MTYZ also brought its celebrated production of Alexander Ostrovsky's "The Storm." That 1860 Russian classic probably is best known outside Russian these days through Janacek's opera, "Kat'a Kabanova," based upon the play. The eye of the "Storm" is yet another take on the Russian mother as a piece of work, and the MTYZ production, which opened here Thursday night, also is exceptional. Both productions at the Richard B. Fisher Center run through Sunday.

Directors Kama Ginkas and Henrietta Yanovskaya, a husband-and-wife team who formed MTYZ in 1988, are among Russia's most notable former dissidents. In the early '60s, they were students and emerging artists in then-Leningrad in a circle that included the poet Joseph Brodsky, who typically would barge into their communal apartment at 7 a.m. and awaken them with poetry recitations. After 20 years on the fringes, including a stint making theater in Siberia, they were allowed into the Moscow mainstream only with the arrival of perestroika.

"K.I. from 'Crime' " was written nine years ago for Mysina by Daniil Gink, the couple's son, and she has been performing it regularly in Moscow and on tour ever since. It is the company's most renowned production; the U.S. now is the 15th country that has seen it. How she does it at all, let alone how she has kept it up all these years, is a wonder.

Unless you've read "Crime and Punishment" lately, you are not likely to recall Katerina Ivanovna, the widow of the drunk Semyon Zakharovich Marmeladov who is trampled to death by horses when he falls under a carriage. Katerina barely makes an appearance in the novel.

The audience for "K.I." is restricted to 88 and was performed not in one of the Fisher's two main theaters but inventively among the nooks and crannies of the Frank Gehry-designed building. It began off to the side of the lobby. We were brusquely herded onto a back staircase, shoved together and ordered to sit. Mysina, in rags, burst through a door. Mad, she rushed in and out, always slamming the door behind her, speaking in a rapid, crazy stream of Russian and English.

She chose people in the audience and sat next to them. Her emotions changed from second to second. She was funny, tragic, hysterical, endearing, loving, violent. Mainly, she was inescapable. One didn't know whether to laugh or cry, and I saw people around me doing both. She was incomprehensible, yet desperate to be understood. At any moment she could grab your arm, looked you directly in the eye and ask, with trembling lips, in English, "Don't you understand Russian?" Answer yes, and she might smile; answer no, and she might look broken-hearted. Then again she might respond the other way around.

After handing out slips of paper with crude invitations to a memorial for her second husband, Semyon -- or was it for her first husband, she kept getting them confused -- Katerina impatiently herded the audience into a small studio. In the corner huddled three expressionless children. The youngest was a girl without legs. The young son, whom Katerina slapped around and cuddled, never lost his blank stare. The oldest, a pre-pubescent girl, we eventually learn was forced into prostitution by Katerina to feed the family.

The memorial is a crescendo of humiliating manic craziness, barely relieved by Mysina playing snatches of out-of-tune Bach on an old violin. After railing against the world's injustice until neither she nor her spectators can endure it any longer, she collapses lifeless. A ladder descends from the ceiling on a rope. She holds on, and it takes her, swinging aloft, to the accompaniment of loud electronic pop music. It is her apotheosis.

"The Storm," is the story of another Katerina who is the victim of Russian social persecution and who can find liberation only by drowning herself in the Volga. This Katerina is the young wife of an impotent mama's boy, and her erotic awakenings are the result of an adulterous affair. Yanovskaya's production in the smaller of the Fisher's two theaters emphasized the primitive intolerance of a Russian village in which everyone is either oppressor or oppressed.

It is a long, angry show -- 3- 1/2 hours -- that clearly is the product of producers who have spent long years under political oppression. But the large cast proved to be a remarkable, hard-working ensemble, headed by the radiant Katerina of Julia Svejakova. Sergei Barkhin's set is an installation of mounds of dirt, rows of folk dolls, a tree with colored Easter eggs and dripping water into buckets. Symbols of childhood and nature, they suggested that hypocrisy of social injustice often parades itself in the costume of moral righteousness.

Most of all, the embodiment of that moral righteousness was Era Ziganshina as Katerina's icy mother-in-law Marfa. Even taking a bow, cracking her first smile all evening, Ziganshina still seemed the upstanding, unreasonable mother from hell. Once these MTYZ Russian mothers get their claws in, they stay there.

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