Masquerade – Cherry Orchard Festival/Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre of Russia

Jun 22, 2019
Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre of Russia’s production of Masquerade is presented by Cherry Orchard Festival. Written by Mikhail Lermontov. Directed by Rimas Tuminas. Set Design: Adomas Yatsovskis. Costumes design: Maxim Obrezkov. Music: Aram Khachaturian and Faustas latenas. Lighting Designer: Maya Shavdatuashvili. Author of English Subtitles: Ivan Samokhin.
I don’t know that I’ve ever felt so ill prepared to write a review as I am to write this one of Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre of Russia’s production of Masquerade. It’s not that I don’t have any particular feelings about it and it’s not that I don’t have any analytical thoughts about what it is I’ve seen. It’s that I’ve always prided myself, when necessary, on being able to provide a certain amount of context for what I think is happening on stage. To lay out a map of what I perceive the work to be going for and how those intentions fit into the history of the art form. I can’t do that here. I had never heard of the Russian playwright Mikhail Lermontov, (whose 1835 work provides the foundation for this production), nor was I familiar with any of the Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre’s work. To top it off, the production was performed in Russian, (with subtitles), a language that I don’t speak, so I was going into this show about as blind as it’s possible to be.
Turns out, that mentality may have worked in Masquerade’s favor as this ended up being one of the more fascinating theater experiences that I’ve had in recent memory. Director Rimas Tuminas turns in a production that seems to reach out from a strange netherworld, a metaphysical limbo. The framework might be an old-fashioned melodrama but it tells its story with a kind of surreal logic that catches you in its spell. Just like in a dream, moments unfold in a manner where each seems disconnected from the others, but as you’re pulled along through the narrative, as if by an invisible thread, you never stop to question what you see. Somehow it all blends together to make a kind of wonderful absurd sense.
Plot-wise, Lermontov’s play pitches itself as a kind of riff on Shakespeare’s Othello. In 19th century Russia, a middle-aged aristocrat, Arbenin Evgeny Aleksandrovich (Evgeny Knyazev) becomes convinced that his young wife Nina (Maria Volkova) is cheating on him after they attend a masquerade ball. His proof? That at the masquerade, his friend, Prince Zvezdich (Leonid Bichevin) falls head over heels for a masked woman who doesn’t give the Prince her name, but does gift him a bracelet as a memento. Arbenin recognizes the bracelet as belonging to his wife, setting off a downward spiral into jealousy that will have disastrous consequences for all involved.
On the face of it, there doesn’t really seem to be much in that paper-thin plot for a modern audience and the script takes more than a few turns into high melodrama. But the plot of the show almost feels incidental to the magical mood that Tuminas is intent on creating. His actors will often deliver lines or cross the stage while maintaining odd physical poses, allowing simple gestures to suddenly feel like in-depth character studies. A flurry of snow keeps passing overhead to mark the passage of time. It’s as if we’re watching the events of the story play out in purgatory. Set designer Adomas Yatsovskis drapes the production in a large black void. The little furniture that there is on stage is more reminiscent of a graveyard than an aristocratic drawing rooms. A haunting theme plays on a continuous loop, subtly underscoring the proceedings and contributing to the show’s hypnotic effect. The music is by Aram Khachaturian (who wrote for the original 1830’s production) and Faustas Latenas.
Although I’m sure it wasn’t planned this way, for Boston audiences, the production actually makes a nice pairing with a recent Arts Emerson offering: Stephen Daldry’s production of An Inspector Calls. Both productions had to wrestle with fact that their original texts were written in styles that have dropped out of fashion with contemporary audiences. Daldry solved that problem by digging into the metaphor of the play. Here, Tuminas heightens and highlights the characters emotions until it reaches operatic terms and he lets that emotion blend into the visuals he creates on stage. After a while, you begin to feel like you’re Alice in Wonderland, where the proportions of objects never stay constant. Small scenes between two characters will blow out and suddenly the stage is filled with images that seek to overwhelm you. You press back in your seat so that you can take it all in.
This is a production that seems to oscillate between two worlds. Although the story is a tragedy, in parts it also manages to cross the cultural divide and be very funny. Here again, my ignorance of the original play worked in the production’s favor because to my experience, it seemed as though the play was trying to make up its mind as to whether it was going to become a comedy or a tragedy. In fact, you could take the original setup and with some slight reworking, end up with an amusing restoration comedy.
Eventually, though, the play has to pick a side and slides down the path towards tragedy. It’s in that final stretch that I think the production begins to slip a little. Despite some beautiful images, the melodrama of the events begins to crest and actions that are supposed to be devastating start to produce giggles (They did in me, at least. The audience around me sat in stony silence). Still, it’s unfortunate that by the time this review has gone up, the production will have moved on from Boston. It’s a gorgeous production that’s well worth taking a peek into its snow globe world.
The Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre’s production of Masquerade was presented by Cherry Orchard Festival at the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre June 18-19, 2019.

Source: Boston Stage Notes

Author: James Wilkinson

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