The Moscow Times, June 17, 2005
By John Freedman
What the Chekhov International Theater Festival does best is break down barriers. On the most superficial level, it does that by making the city of Moscow home to almost the whole world of theater for approximately two months every other summer. This time around, between the so-called World Series productions and the Experimental and Youth program, the festival is offering 33 shows from 15 countries, including six from France, five from Brazil and three each from Japan, Taiwan and Britain.
But the festival also blazes trails by taking chances, bringing together artists and art forms that may at first glance seem incompatible. We have already seen that principle in action in several of the shows making up the first two weeks of the 8 1/2 weeks of nonstop international theater.
Perhaps the risks were minimal in inviting German director and composer Heiner Goebbels to open the festival with his production of Eraritjaritjaka for the Theatre Vidy-Lausanne Espace Theatral Europeen of Switzerland. Goebbels is one of the most acclaimed theater artists in Europe today. On the other hand, he is also a great risk-taker, a restless soul and a seeker for new ways of communicating through art. Not only does Eraritjaritjaka sound different from any other show we may know, but it is a fascinating combination of music, theater and film which adds up to that rarest of commodities: something new under the sun
In the case of A Fine Time, Nikolai Druchek's production of a play by Chinese writer Chao Yo Min, the Chekhov Festival did more than hunt down an unusual theatrical production. It also joined forces with the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center to co-produce this show created by Russian and Chinese artists. In all, the festival co-produced four projects this year, the others being Urban Sax, the extravaganza that kicked off the festivities in the Aquarium Garden in the first days of June; Olga Subbotina's production of An-der-sen, Ksenia Dragunskaya's play about Hans Christian Andersen that ran last week; and British director Declan Donnellan's production of Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters, which will play at the Pushkin Theater from June 24 to July 3.
A Fine Time, which closed Thursday after a seven-night run, featured an impressive line-up of Russian talent on the production side. Druchek, a 2002 graduate of Pyotr Fomenko's directing course, has already made a name for himself with productions in Moscow (at the Fomenko Studio), St. Petersburg (at the prestigious Bolshoi Drama Theater) and other Russian cities. He was joined by Emil Kapelyush, a St. Petersburg resident who is regularly counted among Russia's top stage designers, and Alexander Bakshi, one of the country's most innovative composers. They worked with a cast of young Chinese actors, many of whom specialize in Kunqu opera.
The show, whose title is also listed in English in the festival booklet as The Lost Opera, tells of a centuries-old acting dynasty on the verge of dying out. The tale comes to us largely through the narration of Din Lee (Van Yun), the family's youngest son, who is unable to become an actor because of an ailment that has left him with a limp. His thoughts and memories come to life as a series of semi-realistic scenes involving his actress mother (Ven Yan) and her lover (Chan Yunke); Din Lee's biological father; and the family's great, aging patriarch (Guan Duntyan), whose allegiance is less to his sons and daughters than to the mission of preserving the traditions of Kunqu opera.
Bringing a light, sensitive hand to the play, Druchek coaxed thoughtful, sincere performances from the entire cast. The parallel stories of a dying family and a dying art form are revealed with a sense of mystery and wonder. In the finale, the director's image of hundreds of white flowers raining from the skies is startling in its beauty and in the sense of nostalgia it evokes.
The space designed by Kapelyush with assistance from Chinese designer San Tzi is a dazzling mix of abstract images and concrete objects. Fluttering sheets of text hanging from the flies induce thoughts of leafy trees and of the scores and scripts that make up Kunqu opera. Bowed segments of bamboo, also hanging from the flies, are concretely suggestive of traditional Chinese boats and — when they travel from one side of the stage to the other — metaphorically evocative of the passing of life and time.
The soundscape created by Bakshi comprises a delicate mix of traditional Chinese music, ritual humming, the natural sounds of banners and sleeves flapping, and emotionally motivated bursts of percussion. With the art of opera being this work's central focus, Bakshi's treatment of the music takes center stage. In fact, during one key scene in which the dynasty's further existence is called into question, the musicians move out from the corners of the stage and take up positions front stage and center. The development of the action behind them is obscured visually, but given greater meaning metaphorically, by their unnaturally prominent position on stage. A Fine Time was a fresh, often moving production that wed elements of Western and Eastern styles of theater to the enrichment of both.
Goebbels' arresting Eraritjaritjaka, based on texts by the Nobel Prize-winning author Elias Canetti, was nothing if not another cultural stew. The German director worked in Switzerland with the French actor Andre Wilms and the Dutch Mondriaan String Quartet to interpret the texts of a Bulgarian-born writer who lived primarily in England but wrote exclusively in German. As if that weren't multinational enough already, the show's title — drawn from a book by Canetti — is a phrase from the language of the Australian Aborigines that means, inspired by the search for that which no longer is.
At the show's performances in early June, Wilms delivered Canetti's often aphoristic phrases expressing the paradoxes of the human condition in a theatrical and musical context that expanded and renewed their significance. He began on an empty stage, surrounded by the musicians of the Mondriaan Quartet, but in a moment of frustration left the theater altogether. His actions from then on were projected to us by way of a video camera that followed him into a waiting vehicle which delivered him, via Tverskaya Ulitsa and various Moscow side-streets, to an apartment from which most of the remainder of the show was presented. It was only as the finale approached that we realized Goebbels and his designer Klaus Grunberg had played a clever trick on us: The apartment from which much of the performance was broadcast was actually a theatrical set located backstage, immediately behind the very screen on which the action was projected.
The sense of displacement and disorientation that Goebbels' ruse foisted on the audience was a visceral interpretation of Canetti's texts. I feel most at home when I hold a pencil and write in German and around me everyone is speaking English, Canetti wrote. This expression of the writer's ability to find meaning in shifting linguistic and cultural spaces became, in Goebbels' hands, a method of theatrical transformation. The Chekhov Festival has many more theatrical and cultural transformations on tap. Shortly after the premiere of Donnellan's Three Sisters, Japanese director Tadashi Suzuki will offer his own interpretation of Chekhov's Ivanov, running from June 28 to 30 at the Mossoviet Theater. Another significant cross-cultural work will be Simon McBurney's production of The Noise of Time for the British Complicite Theater. This theatrical rendition of Dmitry Shostakovich's String Quartet in E Flat will play July 9 to 12, also at the Mossoviet Theater.
John Freedman, 17-06-2005
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