'Hamlet, 'Hey, Slavs!' and other high points along the trail of a Russian theater excursion
THEATER Emerald green rooftops and gold domes enliven the skyline of Omsk, a provincial city and former Soviet industrial hub of roughly one million people, located at the intersection of two Siberian rivers: the wide, island-populated Irtysh and the smaller, swifter Om. The latter gave its name to the town, which grew from a fort established at the meeting point of the rivers in 1716, back when this was the disputed frontier of the expanding Russian empire.
But now it's the last week of May 2013. The fort is long gone. In its place stands the Lighthouse, a large white hotel-cum–shopping mall festively crowned with neon Cyrillic lettering. Rounded at one end and peaked with towers, it drolly resembles a cruise ship in port. The sun is still out at 10 p.m., and a gusty wind rolling off the plains churns the warm air pleasantly.
Sleepy though this town seems by comparison with St. Petersburg, Moscow, or even Yekaterinburg — the three other stops on a four-city tour I joined last month, in conjunction with a US-Russia theater dialogue developed by the Center for International Theatre Development — Omsk turns out to be not so remote in many ways. For one thing, it's a hotbed of theatrical activity at the moment, with the biennial Young Theaters of Russia Festival in full swing. Nor is the Russian empire entirely a thing of the past, as tonight's provocation by a troupe from the former Yugoslav republic of Slovenia makes plain enough.
Damned be the Traitor of His Homeland! — a production of Ljubljana's internationally renowned experimental company, Mladinsko Theatre — is a no-holds-barred attack on jingoism, xenophobia, and the false allegiances they promote, as well as on complacency in the face of recent history, government corruption, and social decay. Taking its title from the last verse of the former Yugoslav national anthem, it gleefully lobs profanity, insult, accusation, nudity, a flurry of gunshots, and lots of local dirt (dug up for the occasion) at its unsuspecting audience — who frequently find themselves unnaturally exposed and singled out under merciless house lights.
It begins quietly enough: its ten cast members onstage, reclining on the floor and clutching musical instruments, looking like a freshly slaughtered marching band — until the sound of breathing through a tuba begins a general stirring that quickly escalates into an instrumental movement titled, "Won't Go Against My Brother." Next, the cast introduces itself with ribald, pointed, self-effacing humor through their own imagined obituaries — each of which makes explicit reference to an imaginary production of "Hey, Slavs!" (in fact, the title of the Yugoslav anthem) directed by acclaimed Bosnian Croatian bad-boy director Oliver Frljic (in fact, the production's own director).
Cycling through various loosely related scenes, all built from improvisations, Damned delivers its pleas and gibes with a potent combination of muscular staging, lively wit, intrepid honesty, and moments of wrenching beauty. It produced some walkouts the night we saw it — many more the night before, reportedly — but its themes were undeniably urgent and its manner both raw and sure. This was all before Edward Snowden went public with details of the NSA's PRISM program or had arrived in Moscow from Hong Kong en route to some hoped-for political asylum abroad. But there was no denying the implications for any Americans in the audience as well.