Review: ‘Smile at Us, Oh Lord’ Depicts a Jewish Odyssey

Jun 08, 2015

Buried deep in the show, the old joke got a warm, rolling laugh on Friday night from the crowd at City Center.“How do you feel about our government?” “Same as about my wife. Kind of fear, kind of love, kind of want a different one.”

But onstage in “Smile at Us, Oh Lord,” a mournful, dreamlike play from the Vakhtangov State Academic Theater in Moscow, the line doesn’t even get a smirk from the stolid stonecutter Efraim Dudak. It’s the early 20th century in Lithuania, and Efraim’s son, Girsch, wants a new government so fiercely that he’s just shot the Russian czar’s top man in Vilnius.

So Efraim and two friends — Shmulé­Sender, whose beloved horse pulls the carriage, and Avner, a sweet pauper with a prosperous past — have embarked on a road trip from their shtetl, hoping to reach Girsch before he is either hanged or sent to Siberia

Adapted from a novel by the Israeli­based Lithuanian author Grigory Kanovich, “Smile at Us” — presented by the Cherry Orchard Festival and performed in Russian with English supertitles — has none of the dazzling glamour of the Vakhtangov’s “Eugene Onegin,” which the company performed at City Center a year ago.

These characters are poor Jews in Eastern Europe, and there’s much about their lives that isn’t pretty. But tableaus of striking beauty and grace are a hallmark of the Vakhtangov’s artistic director, Rimas Tuminas, who staged both productions. He imbues even Efraim’s ragged village (the set is by Adomas Jacovskis) with touches of the fantastical — chiefly involving a shegoat, who hovers over the opening moments like a creature in a Chagall canvas, except that she looks a little impaled. Then the goat, played by Yulia Rutberg in a long white dress, floats down to ground level and proves to be as lyrical as Pan.

Vladimir Simonov (who alternates his role with Sergey Makovetskiy) is quietly moving as the tough and lonely Efraim, while Aleksei Guskov (who alternates with Evgeny Knyazev) is an understated Shmulé­Sender. As a sketchy figure who joins the travelers midjourney and gets to tell that government joke, Victor Dobronravov is funny and fluid. But the standout performance comes from Viktor Sukhorukov, a luminous clown whose Avner is otherworldly, ecstatic, maybe slightly mad and altogether heartbreaking.

The three­hour production, which ended its New York run on Sunday and moves on to Boston this week, starts to feel long toward the end, but Mr. Tuminas’s stark and chilling finish obliterates any sense of fatigue. To him, these are not merely men on the road to Vilnius. They are Jews traveling into the 20th century, and we know what awaits them there. “Smile at Us, Oh Lord” continues Friday and Saturday at the Cutler MajesticTheater, 219 Tremont Street, Boston; 617­824­8000,

Source: New York Times


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