'Othello' a Wasted Chance

The Moscow Times
By John Freedman
Published: February 21, 2003

Whatever their differences, William Shakespeare and Edward Albee have one thing in common -- both are among the most popular English-language playwrights in Russia. Albee, perhaps, has not been produced here often of late, but his reputation remains as high as ever. Shakespeare is so ingrained in Russian culture that sometimes you doubt his English origins. 

"Othello" is generally thought of as one of Shakespeare's greatest plays and certainly is produced often. A new version, directed by filmmaker Alexander Zeldovich for Bokovfactory and the Praktika Theater Group, is the fourth in recent years if we include a rendition of Verdi's opera of it at the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Theater. By contrast, Vladimir Yachmenyov's production of Albee's "Tiny Alice" at the Dzhigarkhanyan Theater is a less obvious choice.       

 "Tiny Alice," written early in Albee's career in 1964, is not a play that jumps to mind when you think of this author. His most famous, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" "Zoo Story" and "Three Tall Women," are the ones that have established his reputation.

 One sees in performance why "Tiny Alice" is usually considered one of Albee's minor works. Rather than developing under its own power, it seems to have been written according to a paint-by-number plan for absurdist plays. It is a fairly cold-nosed work that is constructed like a mathematical equation.

 Alice is an enigmatic figure, the richest woman in the world, who has decided to donate a fantastic sum -- $100 million per year for 20 years -- to the Catholic Church. In exchange, she doesn't want much, only the lifeblood and soul of a pious novice named Julian. Helping her in her scheme are her attorney and butler, both lovers of hers at one time or another. Also involved is a corrupt cardinal who is a childhood friend of the equally crooked attorney.

 There is something in this play of Friedrich Durrenmatt's "The Visit," in which a wealthy woman returns to her hometown and buys from the weak and corrupt townspeople the execution of the man who once seduced her and jilted her. But where Durrenmatt's play, written eight years earlier than "Alice," is shaded with its author's moral outrage, Albee's work appears to suggest that the human experience exists in a moral vacuum where love has no redeeming value. Julian's fall -- Alice seduces him, marries him and then stands by as he is murdered -- is portrayed as utterly unavoidable; in fact, everyone, Julian included, is playing a rote role that has been repeated forever and apparently will be played out again without end.

 This production is graced by some excellent performances. The first scene, introducing us to the shady attorney (Vladimir Kapustin) and the slimy cardinal (Yury Anpilogov) as they discuss the basic terms of Alice's donation, is especially strong. Kapustin and Anpilogov bring out the wit and rhythm of Albee's dialogue in a way that actually sets up more expectations than the play as a whole can withstand.

 As Alice, Olga Kuzina is deceptively harmless, even as she plays various roles before Julian, confusing him and slowly seducing him along the way. For his part, Alexei Shevchenkov's Julian is deceptively bland, trying his best to remain the virtuous soul he wants to be, but always giving off a whiff of fear that he may fall back into the godless years he spent in his early adulthood. The crowning moments of Shevchenkov's performance come when he finally lets the artificial facade of propriety fall away from his character. As the Hitler-like butler, Andrei Merzlikin is duplicity incarnate.

 The production's contrasting visual aspects are established by Yulia Aks' ornate costumes and Roman Snegur's almost-nonexistent set. Reflecting the notion that all the people are merely playing roles that eternally repeat themselves, the action takes place on a bare stage whose depth is measured off by seven layers of curtains. The only major prop is a scale model of the castle in which the events are taking place. Albee's notion is that the same events we are witnessing on stage are concurrently taking place inside the model which also is said to have a model inside of it and on and on ad infinitum. Thus, if these events are repeated forever over the course of time, they are also occurring simultaneously in an infinite expanse of space.

 I found Albee's play to be too calculated and formulaic to engage me for long. On the other hand, I was often carried along by the nuances of the acting.

 This I cannot say about "Othello," although its cast features four highly respected actors. An abbreviated version -- narrowed to just Othello (Grigory Siyatvinda), Desdemona (Yelena Morozova), Iago (Alexander Anurov) and his wife Emilia (Vera Voronkova) -- it fails to communicate on almost all levels. Zeldovich, best known as the director of the film "Moskva" and making his theatrical debut with this production, succumbed to a sin common to filmmakers switching to theater: He went more for effect than for substance and ended up with little of either.

 Lighting designer Pavel Danko and the designing team of Tatyana Arzamasova, Lev Yevzovich and Yevgeny Svyatsky did little to help. Almost the entire show, with the exception of the murder scene, is performed in various "shades" of darkness. The unattractive and often obtrusive set consists primarily of a huge, empty cube without walls that is interminably slowly turned here and there by stagehands. Occasionally they drape the cube or parts of the stage with cloth to create a screen on which filmed images of Othello working out at a fitness center are projected.

 This production had attracted interest because it was finally bringing what seemed to be the right actor to the right role. I won't claim to know why, but whenever Russian directors stage "Othello," they resort to the silly practice of blackening a white actor's face. It has long been obvious that if directors can't cast this part colorblind, who else should play it but Siyatvinda, Moscow's only African-Russian actor?

 More important, however, Siyatvinda is one of the best actors to have emerged in Moscow in the last decade. He is an actor of depth, power, intelligence and subtlety. He has blown away the "color line" in the opposite direction with brilliant performances of Macbeth and characters from Molire, so why not have him take on the most famous classical role for an actor of color?

 Zeldovich is the director who made the inevitable a reality, though he wasted the opportunity. Essentially, he staged a show about Iago and the anatomy of treachery. In this shortened version, most of the plot development and most of the internal monologues belong to Iago. Almost all of the motivations for what happen originate with him.

 Anurov plays Iago as he would at Anatoly Vasilyev's School of Dramatic Art, where he is a member of that troupe. He enunciates phrases with heavy, often unnatural intonations, apparently seeking to impart a philosophical underpinning to his words, but more commonly depriving his character of believability and sense.


Siyatvinda valiantly seeks for soft spots, nuances and quirks in his Othello. In another production, it is clear that he might create a fascinating, multivalent character. But here, usually buried in darkness and faced with Iago speaking like a truck trundling over a bumpy road, there is little he can do.

 This "Othello" was a good idea that went nowhere fast.

 "Tiny Alice" (Kroshka Alisa) plays March 8, 9 and 21 at 7 p.m. at the Dzhigarkhanyan Theater, 17 Lomonosovsky Prospekt. Metro Universitet. Tel. 930-7049, 930-4269. Running time: 2 hours, 55 minutes.
 "Othello," a production of Bokovfactory and the Praktika Theater Group, resumes performances in March. For information, e-mail bokovfactory@rambler.ru or practika@rambler.ru

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Actor Alexei V.Shevchenkov