A few days before I was due to arrive in St. Petersburg, my mother was introduced to an administrator of one of the small local theatre companies. This woman turned out to be a huge theatre popularizer and a ticket resale agent. Clearly good at her job, she talked my mother into buying tickets to at least four shows in the upcoming weeks, and maybe more that I don't yet know about. As a result, I've been splitting my time in St. Petersburg between working (among other things, I'm preparing to give a talk at a major city library about my recent book, Keys From the Lost House), visiting friends--and going to the theatre.
On Friday, we went to see "Скамейка [The Bench]," a Soviet play from approximately 1960s. A man and a woman meet at a bench in the park, and it turns out that they'd met there before and had gone home together. The man is a habitual liar and a womanizer, and the woman is a naive and yet relentless detective, determined to help him and help herself. The production was stylized to the 1960s aesthetic (this didn't please my brother and his partner who came with us), the two actors of "Our Theatre" did a very good job, he, playing a man with many different faces, and she, a woman who constantly wavers between her desire to believe him and her lack of trust in his words. This play would be a great subject of analysis from the feminist point of view: I found it interesting that she initiated all the action in this play, and he was the one constantly on the defensive. They played traditional gender roles in that she was looking for a man to marry, while he was looking for a one night stand, but then it was also quite clear that this particular man would be a huge nuisance to her as a husband, and he thinks of one night stands as a kind of a chore.
On Monday, my parents, my aunt Maya and I went to the opera at the Mariinsky theatre, to see "Boris Godunov." Blame a young conductor or the ancient staging (the theatre restored Tarkovsky's production from 1960s or 1970s), this particular opera was a slow, depressing bore. This, despite the fact that all the singers were in excellent form, and our family friend, Akimov, sang the major tenor part, Grishka Otrepiev. His sweet, colorful voice woke us up once in a while, but by the end of the performance most of us were overcome with deep, albeit fitful, sleep.
Tonight's theatrical engagement was with a company named "Not Very Big Dramatic Theatre" (as opposed to the local "Bolshoi Theatre" and "Malyi Theatre" -- the Big and the Small theatres). The play was called "The Orchestra," written by a French playwright Jean Anouilh in 1962. After WWII, a man obsessed with an orchestra imagines the difficult private lives of the musicians. The acting was excellent, once again this week, especially parts of the play that were mimed or done in incoherent speech. I was not a huge fan of the dialogue--some of it felt much too melodramatic. The staging was very imaginative and inventive--characters used very simple and clear signs to indicate change from realist mode into a more introspective scene. Great use of simple props--like buckets of water to wash the floor of the theatre at several key moments during the play. What was particularly unexpected about this play: I think, this is the first time, when on the stage of a St. Petersburg theatre, I get to see a love scene between two men. It was the best scene of the play, too. The actors had great chemistry with one another, and although they stopped shy of a kiss, they seemed completely in love. There was also a hint at a sexual relationship between two women, little more than a hint, really; worse, intimations of an abusive relationship. I wonder what this relationship looks like in the text of the play. Would love to see other productions!
Both of the plays we saw ("The Bench" and "The Orchestra") were produced by small theatre troupes. Each of these companies employs about 10-12 actors. Both of these small troupes are sponsored by the government. The Russian government pays actors salary, also pays rent. This enables them to stage rather ambitious plays (like "The Orchestra" that seemed to require the participation of the entire company) in small spaces. The auditoriums at these theatres are limited to about 200 people, and despite their excellent qualities, neither of the plays sold out. I kept expecting the actors to ask for money at the end of the performance, but they never did. Such a thing is unheard of here; instead, at the end of the performance, dedicated theatre patrons give their favorite actors flowers--and applaud until their hands develop callouses.
By the way. One of the pieces "The Orchestra" played (in addition to a bunch of French chanson) was a Squirrel Nut Zippers song, straight from the 50s, right! Go Zippers! Except, I bet the theatre never paid the band any kind of usage fee.
Dave is in China, and blogging from China again: http://dave-grenetz.blogspot.com/2011/05/on-road-again-in-shanghai-5182011.html