Two in one, or footsteps of vaudeville comedy
[b]Premiere of Russian Vaudevilles, presented by Maxim Gorky National Academic Drama Theatre, expects full houses for new theatre season[/b]The theatre season in Belarus hasn’t yet finished, with rehearsals in the mornings and performances at night. This routine is, of course, accelerated by new stage productions — always a big event for the theatre and its fans, even when a play isn’t well received. This isn’t the case with the new work by the Russian Theatre though (as it is traditionally called). First of all, I’d like to pay my compliments to the producers.
The theatre season in Belarus hasn’t yet finished, with rehearsals in the mornings and performances at night. This routine is, of course, accelerated by new stage productions — always a big event for the theatre and its fans, even when a play isn’t well received. This isn’t the case with the new work by the Russian Theatre though (as it is traditionally called). First of all, I’d like to pay my compliments to the producers.
Although Sergey Kovalchik is still considered to be a young director, his staging experience is truly impressive. Russian Vaudevilles is his third play since having been appointed as chief director. He has proven himself to be a clever strategist, inviting Olga Klebanovich, People’s Artist of Belarus, to co-direct with him. She accepted delightedly and notes that Sergey has a wonderful feeling for comedy. He also values the musical aspect of a play, being an accordion player (he recently gave a charity performance). His latest effort is inspired by stylish cabaret-band Serebryanaya Svadba (Silver Wedding), using vaudeville art, ironic lyrics and paradoxical songs. The music and songs in the play are loaded with meaning, showing the details of routine life via vaudeville art, highlighting the characters’ wit. Well considered songs lend additional strength to the sweet paradoxes and follies, jokes and grimaces in which the vaudeville genre is naturally rich.
Original Russian vaudeville originated in the 19th century. Piotr Grigoriev — author of St. Petersburg Joke with Tenant and Landlord — was an actor and playwright. For almost 50 years, he played on the stage of the Imperial Drama Theatre in St. Petersburg. Meanwhile, dramatist Pavel Fyodorov wrote Az and Fert; he headed the repertoire department and managed the St. Petersburg Theatre School, translating and adapting French vaudevilles and light comedies for Russian taste. Both left a significant literary heritage, still widely used by theatres around the world.
According to Sergey Kovalchik, he has long wanted to stage a vaudeville show, since it’s a ‘wonderful opportunity for a young theatre company to learn’. For the four students from the Academy of Arts who perform as orchestra members and play different music instruments, it’s also a great training opportunity on the professional stage. Vaudeville is a rather complicated genre, since it’s easy for the balance to tip from light comedy to farce, from elegance to vulgarity. This performance has managed to tread the path smoothly however, with young and older generations playing their parts beautifully.
Anna Malankina plays Marfa Semenovna in Az and Fert: good-looking, graceful and smart in her execution. Another bright actress is Alexandra Bogdanova, who is also very charming, playing daughter Lyubushka; she is to be married off ‘without fail’ by her father, Ivan Andreevich Mordashov. The latter is played by Anatoly Golub, who recently joined the Gorky Theatre (this is his second worthy role for them). He has created a complex character, whose ‘decoration’ seems to come from a huge internal life. I must confess that I loved watching him unveil his role, raising his emotional depth as each scene progresses. His monologues contrast splendidly with his dialogues with his wife, his daughter and her bridegrooms. At any moment, you expect him to stumble and make a mistake: either in intonation or expression. He could easily have made his character absurd, which would bore us and make us doubt his academic theatre skills, but Golub performed everything brilliantly. His Mordashev rushes onto the stage as if scalded and, in my view, fulfils his goal brilliantly: playing the father of a family obsessed by the idea of marrying their daughter only to the man whose initials coincide with the monograms already printed on their Dutch linen and expensive Dutch crockery!
The director tandem grip is felt throughout the entire performance and his cast indeed shapes the material well, first softening it, then sculpting it to their intended task. Olga Klebanovich is an expert in psychological theatre, so naturally brings this experience to her job as co-director. She asserts that she primarily asks actors — especially young ones — to fill the lives of their heroes with internal content. To be more precise, she asks them to create a biography for their characters, generating memories for them to bring them alive and make them appealing to the audience. The actors themselves also prefer to adopt this technique.
I recall with great pleasure the work of young actress Dubrovskaya in Az and Fert, playing maidservant Akulka. The role is small, with hardly any lines, but Dubrovskaya skilfully performs her amusing part, using expression, gestures, curt phrases and funny mimicry. Naturally, this was well-thought-out by the director. Sometimes, we can almost feel that she is a doll controlled by the experienced hand of a puppeteer.
St. Petersburg Joke with Tenant and Landlord tells the story of Mr. Ivanov, who is searching for a way to pay off his numerous debts. His attempts to settle the problem with creditors don’t advance further than reasoning and smart tricks but, finally, he comes up with a plan to swindle a sizable sum out of his landlord — played by two young actors — Ivan Trus and Oleg Kots. Trus’ performance is distinguished by increased affectation and striving to create an ideological basis for his unwillingness to repay debt. Meanwhile, Kots’ manner of performance is somewhat different: his Ivanov is more cunning and careful compared to the simple-minded and cowardly character of his colleague. Both actors have perfect vocal skills and perform their songs well.
A recent graduate of the University of Culture and Arts, Andrey Senkin is natural in the role of Levka, Ivanov’s servant. His monologue opens the performance and bears great significance. On the opening night, Senkin touched the heart of the play precisely, easily following the melody of the choir, telling of the numerous temptations of life in the capital and the desire to rush after easy money.
We might think that we have nothing to learn from these funny stories about monograms and creditors, about peasants trying to settle in a large town and about the archaic Russian language once used by the lower middle class of St. Petersburg in the last century. However, the themes of these plays are eternal: ordinary people assuming exaggerated authority and the lust for power and wealth. Production designer Alla Sorokina has chosen a bank note as the main element of the theatre set design with good reason. All the action takes place against the background of a hundred Rouble note, used during the rule of Russian Empress Yekaterina II. The entrances and exits in the ‘wall of money’ symbolise different ways of reaching wealth. In a word, the performance gives us many ways in which to think about its themes and laugh. Its underlying messages are clear — even declared; as the story unfolds, these messages only strengthen.
Russian Vaudevilles, by the Russian Theatre, is undoubtedly a success. I hope audiences will keep it running for a long time. The sparkling new show still has a few aspects to improve upon, harmonising its components. As is traditional, the tenth performance is still considered to be ‘opening night’. However, I personally like the very first show, since it’s rather like trying on a new suit with the white threads still hanging. The fabric is yet to be sewn firmly and some adjustments are still needed… As a rule, the fine tuning is done smoothly, with the experienced eye of the director seeing every rough moment. All that’s needed is for the actors to be pliant (as we can see they are). Relying on young actors has been well justified.
By Valentina Zhdanovich