May 30, 2014

As the folks at Monty Python used to say: “And now for something completely different.” Russia’s Vakhtganov State Academic Theatre’s 3 ½-hour stage adaptation of Eugene Pushkin’s legendary novel “Eugene Onegin,” being presented at New York City Center as part of the Cherry Orchard Festival through June 1, is a far cry from New York’s more traditional theatrical fare. While not a wholly satisfying evening, it is a rare and ultimately worthwhile experience.

What makes the work so different is not just that it is in Russian with English subtitles (in a primarily rhymed translation by director Rimas Tuminas). But the literary and visual style of the piece is quite unusual, if often a bit confusing. For example, it took me most of the first act to realize that there were two actors playing the haughty, often remote title character at different stages of his life (Alexei Guskov and Viktor Dobronravov, both quite stunning), as well as two performers as his best friend, the goofy poet Lensky (Oleg Makarov and Vasily Simonov).

Unlike most English-language plays, there’s very little dialogue, but lots of narration, and if you’re unfamiliar with the story (which has also formed the basis of a famous opera and ballet), you might be a little lost for a while. But, like with Shakespeare, all eventually becomes clear.

Moreover, by and large, the acting style is far more declamatory than naturalistic. Still, most of the performers are effective, including Euegeniya Kreghzde as Tatyana, the young woman who falls in love with Onegin, only to be spurned (and years later, spurn him when the tables are turned); Vladimir Siminov as the “Retired Hussar,” who acts as a quasi-narrator; and Irina Kupchenko, who is superbly dramatic in her one scene as the narrator of Tatyana’s dream, which foreshadows an important event in the piece. As in America, though, it’s the one of the most veteran actors who steals the show: Ludmilla Maksakova, who is delicious as both Tatyana’s world-weary nanny and a glamorous dance master.

While there are numerous stunning visual touches (I loved the moments when swings suddenly descended from the stage), other images seem random and completely unnecessary. Personally, I enjoyed many of the dance sequences (especially one small number performed by Pavel Tekheda Cardenas) as well as the many sad songs delivered by the girls during Tatyana’s name day, but other audience members may wish these had been cut out.

Like a Russian winter, “Eugene Onegin” can feel too long, and one is grateful when it’s over. But it’s something to have survived, and possibly even cherished.

Source: Citi Tour NYC


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