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'Hamlet, 'Hey, Slavs!' and other high points along the trail of a Russian theater excursion

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A crackin' good 'Hamlet'

Omsk has nine large municipally funded or federally funded theaters, leaving far behind most American cities of a comparable or even much larger size. And in short it, and the Festival, had much more to offer beyond this one highlight, even if not as explicitly provocative or political in nature. (Those curious to learn more should know that Chris White, artistic director of Mugwumpin and the other San Franciscan on the tour, has written a series of reports on HowlRound with many further details).

Highlights in Moscow included an exquisite production from leading director Dimitry Kymov (whose collaboration with Mikhail Baryshnikov, In Paris, came to Berkeley Rep last year). Based (like In Paris) on the work of famed Russian short story writer Ivan Bunin, Katya, Sonya, Polya, Galya, Vera, Olya, Tanya ... is an original production crafting a series of oddball, sometimes grim love stories into a kind of high art twist on Grand Guignol.

Also utterly memorable was the best production of Hamlet I'd ever seen —staged in a ramshackle venue whose lobby was stuffed with a vaguely foul-smelling array of garage sale toys, Soviet kitsch, and other odds and ends, and whose stage was a small, low-ceilinged black box packed into the aisles with what appeared to be mainly teens. The theater and the production belong to famed Russian director and playwright Nikolay Kolyada. Somewhat infamous after his endorsement of Putin in the last elections (which points to one way in which Russian theater, offstage, can be nothing if not political), Kolyada delivers a decisive reading of Shakespeare's play as a bald, barbaric parable of power — in an incredibly meticulous, distinct, and forceful style whose macabre wit brought to mind some weird admixture of Richard Foreman, Tim Burton, and Terry Gilliam. Whatever else it demonstrated, it showed the Bard's play as utterly, repulsively, and compellingly contemporary — something too rarely accomplished in any language. *

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