Chekhov and the Moscow Stage Today: Interviews with Leading Russian Theater Directors
Rich, Elisabeth T., Michigan Quarterly Review
During recent trips to Moscow, in both 1998 and 1999, I had ample opportunity to see firsthand to what extent mass culture had seeped aggressively into every crevice of present-day Russian life. In the old Arbat region, for example, you could buy an "authentic" diploma for a hundred dollars; play the State "lotto" and instantly win up to ten thousand rubles (roughly $400); or sit in a sidewalk bistro like Taim-Aut (Time Out) and sip such exotic mixed drinks as Meksikanskaya smert' (Mexican Death), Kholodnyj chaj dlinnogo ostrova (Long Island Ice Tea), Seks na plyazhe (Sex on the Beach), or Orgazm (Orgasm). But there were other telltale signs as well: Novye Russkie, the new Russians, sauntered down Moscow streets, sat in restaurants, and even stood in public rest rooms sporting cell phones. Women friends eagerly looked forward to watching the Russian television premiere of Disclosure, a film that, dubbed in Russian, with Michael Douglas and Demi Moore in lead roles, offers unprecedented subject matter (reverse sexual harassment) to what was until recently an extremely patriarchal society. The porter at Sheremetova Airport, who carried my bags across the terminal to Delta Airlines for five dollars, told me that he taught German in a Moscow middle school, but that his salary as a teacher was so abysmal he was forced to take a second job; while on the flight back to New York, a young, smartly dressed Russian woman seated next to me scarcely looked up from her book, Aleksandra Marinina's latest best-selling thriller Posmertnyj obraz (Death Image), which is doing its part to help satisfy Russia's growing appetite for home-grown crime fiction.
Against this backdrop, it seems odd that Russian classics, with Chekhov's plays at the forefront, should continue to dominate the Russian stage; that they have not been upstaged by more modern mid- to lowbrow dramatic productions. True, a quick reading of last season's theatrical programs will reveal such novelties, at least by former Soviet standards, as Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's musical play The Threepenny Opera (Trekhgroshovaya Opera), whose spectacular Broadway-style production at the Satirikon Theater is reportedly the most expensive in the history of the Russian theater, with tickets only affordable to nouveau-riche Russians; Bjuro schast'ya (The Bureau of Happiness), which is touted as the "pervij Moskovsky mjuzikl," or "Moscow's first musical"; countless productions of Neil Simon's plays, including Barefoot in the Park (Bosikom po parka), Last of the Red Hot Lovers (Poslednij pylko vlyublercnaj), and Biloxi Blues (Biloksi-bljuz); Jesus Christ-Superstar (Iisys Khristos-Syperzvezda), a musical based on the rock opera of the same name; as well as an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night (Noch' nezhna). But alongside them, with staggering frequency, there are dramatizations of Dostoevsky's and Gogol's novels, and plays by Nikolai Ostrovsky and Chekhov.
It was with these thoughts in mind that I knocked on the doors of leading Moscow theater directors. Why, I queried each in turn, do the classics continue to have appeal for a society so obviously infected by Western pop culture? And what in particular is Chekhov's relevance and meaning for today's audiences? The second question seemed appropriate, especially considering that the Moscow Art Theater (the theater made famous by Stanislavsky and his dramatic productions of Chekhov's plays, including Chaika [The Seagull], Dyadya vanya [Uncle Vanya], Tri sestry [Three Sisters], and Vishnevyj sad [The Cherry Orchard]) celebrated its one-hundred-year anniversary as recently as 1998.
Sergei Zhenovach, a forty-one-year-old director who has received critical acclaim for his productions of such classics as Turgenev's atmospheric psychological drama Mesyats v dereune (A Month in the Country) and Dostoevsky's Idiot (The Idiot),l agreed to meet with me at the Theater on Malaya Bronnaya. …