Hazards of Love
Two plays - one new, one a 17th-century classic - explore the risky territory of lust and loss.

The Moscow Times
By John Freedman
Published: October 28, 2005
(русский перевод с сокращениями)


Love. What is there left to say about it? Except that you can never say enough. Especially about the dark alleys and dead ends it leads every one of us down. Three hundred and fifty years ago, Moliere created one of the greatest plays ever written about love in "Don Juan, or the Stone Guest." A few years ago, Vasily Sigarev, a twenty-something Russian from the Yekaterinburg area, added a few new twists in his play "Phantom Pains."

Of course, neither "Don Juan" nor "Phantom Pains" is merely "a play about love." Both are about those dead ends and dark alleys, the places we end up stranded, the places where we are discarded and the places where we abandon others. They are about what happens when people are trapped and battered by love. They are about how we break so easily. Maybe that is why both work so well. At least maybe that's why new renditions of both -- "Don Juan" at the Dzhigarkhanyan Theater and "Phantom Pains" at Teatr.doc -- are so effective.

"Phantom Pains" is unmistakably a contemporary play, dirty, uncouth and despairing. It grows out of the territories of death, alcoholism and rape -- or, at least, something similar to it. The characters speak, shall we say, "natural" Russian, sprinkling their speech with obscenities. Their relationships are built on mutual exploitation.

Sigarev also put something else into the mix -- almost an old-fashioned spiritual awakening on the part of Dmitry, a student who is used to getting his kicks on booze and cheap sex. His encounter with Olga, a forlorn young widow who cannot get over her husband's violent death in an accident, is of the kind that can change a life.

Director Irina Keruchenko kept much of the action down low, on the floor. It's a place where, as Eddie says in Sam Shepard's "Fool for Love," there is "less tension." The brief performance begins with a long, lazy prologue of Dmitry (Kirill Pletnyov) hunkered down on the floor, talking to the spectators as they take their seats. He is drunk out of his mind and as charming as Casanova. He teases the audience, flirts with the women and prods the men. It is a masterful bit of work on the part of both director and actor. They completely disarm us before anything begins at all. By the time the often cruel events of the play begin taking place, we have already accepted Dmitry into our hearts.

Dmitry is making a bit of extra money by working on a construction crew. His partner is Gleb (Valentin Samokhin), a crass man who tells Dmitry of a woman who can be had simply by putting on a pair of glasses and pretending to be her dead husband Vovchik. When she appears, Dmitry plays the part and, sure enough, she is ready to lie down with him right there on the filthy, litter-strewn floor (designed by Maria Utrobina).

As played by Yelena Lyamina, the widow Olga is a bird with two broken wings. It is almost as if we can see her fragile heart beating furiously in her breast. She will do anything to avoid having her illusions shattered. Her mind has snapped, if her heart hasn't yet, and she needs someone there to help her relive her tragedy time and again: Maybe this time the outcome will be different... How did she fail to warn Vovchik that he was about to be run over by a tram? He was a poet, and she was willing to lay down her life to make his better. Now she can do that only through surrogates and dementia-induced make-believe.

Lyamina's almost impossibly delicate performance is matched blow for blow by Pletnyov's multifaceted portrayal of a happy-go-lucky type who finds himself caught in a game he is not equipped to play. At first thrilled by the prospect of an easy conquest, he is horrified by the reality of the situation -- he is taking a woman under false pretenses and, no less disconcerting, he is being used every bit as much as he expected to use her. The bitter taste of this lie sticks in his throat and, unexpectedly, he rejects Olga as brutally as he had expected to take her.

"Phantom Pains" is a play about the limits of evil, cruelty and cynicism. Those limits are reached, and crossed, by characters struggling with their own, often warped, personal notions of love.

"Don Juan" is a comedy, a satire, a moral essay and a philosophical discourse. As directed by Vladimir Yachmenyov, it is a knockabout farce with dark, thought-provoking underpinnings.

Don Juan (Stanislav Duzhnikov) is a spirited man who is not about to let anyone cramp his style, least of all his ethically minded servant Sganarelle (Alexei Shevchenkov). So what if the lustful nobleman seduced and married the beautiful Elvire (Olga Kuzina)? If he wants to abandon her to pursue the peasant girls Charlotte (Oksana Golubeva) and Mathurine (Olga Chernova), that is what he will do. He cannot lie, he says, he is a man of nature and instinct. If the Lord moved him to do it, it must be the Lord's business.

Yachmenyov draws a long, loping arc for his Don Juan, starting him out as an apparently sincere man driven by a craving for honesty, but ultimately bringing him to the depths of hypocrisy, cruelty and self-hatred. The entire span of this journey is traversed by Duzhnikov with charismatic bravado. The fact that his love of candor is so convincing early on makes his gradual moral collapse all the more harrowing as it advances to his fateful meeting with the stone statue of a man he once killed in a duel. Nothing in this production, no matter how pathetic Don Juan becomes, ever smacks of cheap moralizing. This is true, in part, because of the sense of paradox and real-life complexity that Duzhnikov brings to his role.

It is also due, in large part, to Shevchenkov's exceptional performance of Sganarelle. He is a whirling top, an endless source of energy, a human mechanism of received wisdom and ready moralistic reproach who is always prepared, instantly, to knuckle under and do his master's foul bidding. Shevchenkov is a gifted actor, capable of expressing unbounded, rebellious passion even as he melts helplessly into sycophancy. He is gut-bustingly funny and razor-sharp in his ability to cut through the black heart of Don Juan's duplicity.

As always at the Dzhigarkhanyan Theater, the acting on all levels is meaty, precise and engaging. Kuzina's Elvire is a wicked caricature of a typical society girl at the beginning and the chilling image of a woman scorned later on. Alexei Annenkov provides a model example of deadpan humor as Monsieur Dimanche, the creditor who is so cruelly mocked by Don Juan.

Yulia Aks created the simple but versatile set that consists primarily of 17th- and 18th-century neoclassical paintings on cloth drapes. She also designed the colorful and eclectic costumes that are humorous and attractive at the same time.

This "Don Juan" gives full reign to Moliere's humor and does justice to the truths that the playwright carefully planted in it.

"Don Juan, or the Stone Guest" (Don Zhuan, ili Kamenny Gost) at the Dzhigarkhanyan Theater, located at 17 Lomonosovsky Prospekt. Metro Universitet. Tel. 930-0347, 930-4269. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes.

"Phantom Pains" (Fantomniye Boli), a production of the Moscow Art Theater School and Teatr.doc, at Teatr.doc, located at 11-13 Tryokhprudny Pereulok, Bldg. 1. Metro Pushkinskaya. Tel. 233-4064. Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes.

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Actor Alexei V.Shevchenkov