new york

Maly Drama Theatre of St. Petersburg

brooklyn academy of music

Toward the end of the Maly Drama Theatre’s production of Gaudeamus, 1992, the entire company—14 male performers (heads shaven) and four women (locks flowing)—takes a break from a two-hour rampage across a raked stage made slippery by a thick layering of fake snow, to execute an elegant series of pliés, tendues, and rendejambes. Following this interlude, the company resumes the slapstick gestures and flat-footed stomping that gives this production its high-jinks theatricality.

The sheer physicality of the production reflects the training methods of Russian theater directors from Meyerhold onwards who used stage equipment to launch an acrobatic kind of storytelling. Physical regimens were devised to build bodies that could serve as the prime instrument of the actor, and broad gestures, meant to carry across open-air piazzas, were developed as part of an emotional shorthand. Gaudeamus, billed as a series of improvisations by Maly Theater actors and students of director Lev Dodin’s class at the Academy of Theater Arts in St. Petersburg, is an exuberant testament to this theatrical tradition.

The raked stage set (by designer Alexei Porai-Koshits) acts as a counterpoint to the far-flung movements of the performers. Though the set invites a romantic skate across the ice, circular trapdoors cut in its surface quickly swallow up one loutish member of a “construction battalion” (a labor force of the Russian Army made up of young people who are physically or intellectually unfit to serve in other units) after another. Gravity, of the Russian condition it would seem, continually pulls the actors down, but the holes have a way of regurgitating what is dropped into them; bodies, clothing, balloons, matchboxes, and pails emerge at different moments above ground, suggesting that an entire community is festering in the mother land’s underworld.

Presented as a 19-part work, with run-on scenes and no intermission, these skits provide a highly textured picture of contemporary Russian sensibilities. Despite the comic mood, an irritation with niggling bureaucracy keeps the players on edge. An equally edgy sexuality pervades the performance: men and women crash into each other and energetically remove their clothes, as though sexual groping might penetrate the dull surface of deprivation to reveal layers of sensuality and pleasure below. Assigned to specific tasks (some soldiers must endlessly clean and rebuild latrines, others must learn to salute) the actors provide stylized depictions of absurd narratives. Only the lovers, such as those astride a grand piano playing Mozart with their toes, are allowed to indulge in a gritty surrealism as an escape from routine.

Though repetitive in parts (the trapdoors soon become gimmicky), and lacking subtlety in others (one of the pitfalls of clowning), this bold production suggests that there is an insightful and powerful theater brewing in Russia ready to infiltrate the West.

RoseLee Goldberg