Stage Door Review 2019


Monday, June 10, 2019


by Mikhail Lermontov, directed by Rimas Tuminas

Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre of Russia

• Luminato & Show One, John Basset Theatre, Toronto

June 9-10, 2019;

• Cherry Orchard Festival, New York Center, New York, NY

June 13-16, 2019

Arbenin: “What is life? It is meaningless”

Luminato and Show One have teamed up to co-present a production of Masquerade by the Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre of Russia. It was announced before the show that this was the North American premiere of the greatest play of Mikhail Lermontov (1814-41), a writer best known for his novel A Hero for Our Time (1840). Luminato and Show One ought to have done a bit more research. Lermontov’s Masquerade (wr. 1835) was presented in Toronto in 1998 by the Little Theatre of Vilnius as part of World Stage. Not only that, the 1998 production had the same director, Rimas Tuminas, as the present production. And, as evidenced by the Vakhtangov production, Tuminas has simply re-created his production of 1998 down to the smallest detail for Vakhtangov. Thus, in fact. not only had Toronto seen Lermontov’s play before, it saw it in the same production before. The only difference was that in 1998 it was performed in Lithuanian and in 2019 it was performed in Russian.

Masquerade (Маскарад) is a great play and it really should be more often performed in North America, where Chekhov is the only Russian playwright whose works are regularly staged with the occasion excursion into Gogol’s The Government Inspector (wr. 1836) or Turgenev’s A Month in the Country (wr. 1855). People might argue that the plot of Masquerade is too similar to Shakespeare’s Othello (1604). But Masquerade, significantly, is an Othello without a racial difference between the main character and his society and without an Iago. Because of this it serves as a significant commentary on Shakespeare’s play.

The centres on Evgeny Arbenin (Evgeny Knyazev), a wealthy middle-aged man, who once led a wild life as a youth but who now abides by the laws of society. He meets the young, gallant Prince Zvezdich (Leonid Bichevin) takes him under his wing and offers show him in how to succeed in high society. 

At a masquerade ball the Prince flirts with a mysterious lady, in reality the Baroness Shtral (Lidia Velezhova), who gives him a bracelet as a memento. Shtral happens to have obtained the bracelet, one of a matching set, from Nina (Maria Volkova), Arbenin’s wife. The Prince recognizes it and is uncomfortable that Arbenin’s wife may have shown interest in him. When Arbenin notices that Nina is missing the bracelet and that she cannot account for its whereabouts and when he sees that the Prince has it, he assumes that Nina has been having an affair with the Prince.

Nina and the Prince try to find out what has happened. But Stral, who is in love with the Prince believes that women should not be subject to male power. Because the Prince spurns her love, the Baroness decides to spread rumours that Nina and the Prince are in love. Arbenin, who earlier in the play, claimed he thought men who were jealous of their wives were fools, now believes that all Saint Petersburg knows of his wife’s affair and his shame. He therefore plots revenge on both of them.

His revenge on the Prince will be not to fight him in a duel but let him live with his shame. He murders Nina by poisoning the ice cream she eats at a ball and explains why he has done so while she is dying later at their home. 

In the last act, the Prince and a character known only as the Stranger (Yury Shlykov) appear. The Stranger, wronged by Arbenin in the past, has carefully watched Arbenin rise in the world while he has fallen, and has been waiting for the time when Arbenin will fall. This happens when the Prince brings Arbenin a letter from the Baroness explaining that Nina was innocent. Realizing what he has done Arbenin goes mad.

What is so fascinating about Lermontov’s play is that no Iago is necessary to drive Arbenin to jealous rage and murder. Unlike Othello, his personality is already flawed and his nature of jealous husbands at the beginning is a sign of his hubris. Even more interesting is that Lermontov holds all of society, called “Beau Monde” all through the play, accountable for the events. The Baroness lies for revenge, the Prince lies to protect himself, the Beau Monde spreads and immediately credits the negative rumours about Arbenin suggesting that Saint Petersburg is a cruel society that takes pleasure in its members’ pain.

It would be wonderful if director Rimas Tuminas were most interested in telling the story clearly. Unfortunately, in the tradition of Regietheater that we encounter more often in opera productions, Tuminas used the play more as a showcase for his directorial ideas, many of which have little or nothing to do with telling the story and some of which actually hinder our understanding of the story.

Foremost among the latter is that there is no masquerade ball in Masquerade. Tuminas makes a great to-do about all of society gathering and riding to the ball on what seems to be a hay wagon, but at the ball itself no one wears masks. The Baroness, undisguised, gives the Prince Nina’s bracelet. In the original, the Prince acts furtively before Arbenin because he is afraid that the masked woman may really have been Nina. Having the Baroness unmasked destroys the main premise of the play and with it Lermontov’s built-in metaphor of the people of society always masking the truth.

Among the former are extensive scenes Tuminas has added to no purpose. Tuminas’ production does not start as Lermontov’s play does with a card game, but rather with a tedious clown show starring Arbenin’s Servant (Oleg Lopuhov), whom Tuminas gives the symbolic role (not in Lermontov) of “Winter Man”. The Servant does innumerable silly things like dusting falling snow off a statue and to demonstrate that society is deceptive, Tuminas has various character perform magic tricks for the Servant who is unable to reproduce what he has seen. 

As Winter Man, the figure begins the action by playing with a snowball. As the action continues the snowball gets bigger and by the end is nearly as high as man. The unsubtle point here is that once Nina loses her bracelet the action “snowballs”. 

Other recurring scenes not in Lermontov include a man who dies standing up while holding a playing card. His male friends use grotesque means to force him into a too-small coffin after rigor mortis has set in, but he always pops up again. They try to sink the coffin in the Neva but it keeps washing back on shore again. It is totally unclear what this succession of scenes has to do with the story other than showing society’s vain effort to hide an embarrassing truth. 

One of Tuminas’ worse ideas is to have the Baroness deliver a forceful, proto-feminist speech about how women must throw off their slavery to men only to have five women listening to the speech repeat it in succession in a variety of silly voices. It may be that Tuminas means to show that the Baroness’s idea are too advanced for the women of the time who merely parrot them without understanding them. Or, to put a more negative construction on it, Tuminas is making fun of the Baroness’s speech by turning it into nonsense. 

There is no explanation why Act 3 of the play should begin with the Servant and the Prince speaking gibberish to each other for nearly ten minutes or for the modern-day hockey player who skates in and out as if he’s lost his way. In a play running two-and-a-half hours with a 15-minute intermission, 30 minutes or more of the running time was taken up with Tuminas additions. Anyone who knows the play will feel that Tuminas’ additions are not only disruptive and tedious but also come at the expense of Lermontov’s text which Tuminas has radically cut. 

Nevertheless, Tuminas does have the occasional good idea. He has Nina wear ballet shoes and frequently go on pointe when with Arbenin. This underlines the fact that although Arbenin thinks himself so advanced in his thinking, he still regards his wife as a little doll whose main attributes are to be pretty and obedient. Another fine notion is to have Arbenin and the Prince play cards without a table after Arbenin suspects him and to have the two throw each card at each other as if they were weapons.

What Tuminas’s production is best known for it is voluminous use of stage snow. Blizzards occur between each scene and snow slowly falls during many scenes. Other than creating many striking stage pictures especially with Maya Shavdatuashvili’s striking lighting, the point of these frequent snowfalls are a mystery. Is it that the true nature of Lermontov’s Saint Petersburg is always hidden? Is it that the pure white of the snow hides a dark reality underneath? Is it a sign of the transience of all things in which case it would be more effective if it disappeared instead of accumulated.

Despite all his directorial incursions, Tuminas does seem able to draw effective acting from the cast. Evgeny Knyazev charts Arbenin’s decline as if he were an urbane and sophisicated King Lear. His Arbenin starts with an upright stature, assured mien and fine resonant voice, but shifts into a frightening ugly rage when he unceasing upbraids Nina while she is dying and spouts the nihilist philosophy her supposed deception has led him to. After he has killed Nina he begins to lose control of his body and voice and by the time he receives proof of her innocence, he has already become a crawling, mewling idiot. 

Nina, as played by Maria Volkova begins as the delicate doll-like figure Arbenin thinks she should be with a high, small voice and infantile inflexion. Yet, in the great scene when Nina realizes that she is dying and that Arbenin is the cause, Volkova shows that Nina grows in moral strength as her combined fear of death and rage against Arbenin transform her into the woman Arbenin never let her become. 

The young, handsome Leonid Bichevin is perfect as Prince Zvezdich, who may be dashing in appearance but is too much of an innocent to understand the web of intrigues that make up Saint Petersburg society. Lidia Velezhova is excellent as Baroness Shtral, emanating both allure and menace in equal measure. She deliver’s the Baroness’s speech about women’s rights with such power that it is a pity Tuminas ruins its effect.

Oleg Lopuhov plays both Arbenin’s Servant and Winter Man looking as if he were a refugee from Slava’s Snowshow (1996) by Slava Polunin. Unlike that show, however, all the gags are so obvious or so pointless as physical humour that they fail to amuse. Yet, Lopuhov provides a fine example of a distinctively Russian style of clown which may inspire uproarious laughter there even if it does not over here. 

Overall, Tuminas’ production does not improve on second viewing. One longs to more Lermontov and less Tuminas. When Tuminas allows himself to focus on the actual excerpts of the play, we can see what a powerful work of drama Masquerade is. Like Tuminas endless repetition of the Waltz from Aram Khachaturian’s Masquerade Suite (1944), his additions constantly threaten to smother Lermontov’s forceful dialogue with tedium. 

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photo: Saint Petersburg society eating ice cream in Masquerade; Evgeny Knyazev as Arbenin and Maria Volkova as Nina; Lidia Velegeva as Baroness Shtral; Leonid Bichevin as Prince Zvezdich; Oleg Lopuhov as Servant (by statue), Evgeny Knyazev as Arbenin (in front of tomb), Leonid Bichevin as Prince Zvezdich (with sword) and ensemble. © 2019 Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre of Russia. 

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