THEATER Moscow's temperatures had been climbing up to 70 degrees just a week before my arrival, but by the first of April, it had slipped back into the 30s and 40s, collecting snow on the ground and clouds overhead in a gloomy replay of winter. In a novel this would have looked like a cheap literary device: nature manifesting a political climate that had also grown decidedly chillier. But with Russia's recent reabsorption of Crimea, and talk everywhere of a new Cold War, it was pretty apt nonetheless.
At the same time, theatrical fires were burning brightly in the weeklong Russia Case, an annual mini-festival spotlighting (for an international audience of presenters, journalists, and others) exceptional theatrical work from the much larger national Golden Mask Festival, with some additional offerings thrown in for good measure.
Curated by Kristina Matvienko, theater critic and member of the Golden Mask board of experts, this year's Russia Case included 20 productions, in addition to other public events, such as an absorbing tour of Moscow's famed Taganka Theatre, the country's center of theatrical innovation and radicalism in the 1960s–70s under founding director and actor Yuri Lyubimov. It's now celebrating its 50th year with a special jubilee program of exhibitions, projects, and new work headed by a group of young theater artists, managers, and critics commissioned by the city's Culture Committee and Cultural Minister Sergei Kapkov.
Things began auspiciously with a sparkling new piece by famed director Kama Ginkas at Moscow TYuZ (pronounced "tooz" and standing for Young Generation Theater), the theater led by his wife, Henrietta Yanovskaya, also an acclaimed director with a production in the festival. Lady Macbeth of Our District, based on a short story by 19th-century Russian writer Nikolai Leskov that was also adapted into an opera by Shostakovich, concerns the ebullient young wife of a village merchant whose lust for life entangles her with a brash laborer with tragic results. Staged with muscular precision and effortless invention — including a shrewd use of winter coats as malleable second-skins and visceral bursts of song and energetic movement — this excellent ensemble piece, led by the vibrant Elizaveta Boyarskaya in the title role, cut right through the serious jetlag of the hour.
Among other highlights was a new work by internationally renowned director Dmitry Krymov (whose In Paris premiered locally at the Berkeley Rep in 2012). The captivating Honoré de Balzac: Notes About Berdichev derives its title from a line in Three Sisters, and this inspired riff on Chekhov's characters sneaks in a fitting depth of thought and emotion beneath its macabre comical surface. With the consummate attention to design and ensemble playing that Krymov and his collaborators have rightly become known for, the production unfolds as a kind of Grand Guignol spectacle, holding up a funhouse mirror to the iconic figures of Chekhov's oeuvre in order to see them afresh as the pitiful, horrifying, hilarious, and beautiful creations they are. The production then shifts into a prolonged denouement in which the actors remove their elaborate makeup and converse and play with one another in a wistful and teasing middle ground between art and life that speaks quietly of that communion that is the essence of theater.