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Culture news
Out With the Old
10.14.2004 14:13

new_drama_festival St Petersburg Times

By John Freedman

Staff Writer

It may be just three years old, but it bites, fights, bullies, sins, occasionally engages in an active search for God and sometimes discovers its own place on the planet.

It is the New Drama festival, an upstart enterprise that, since its inauguration in 2002, has gone from nowhere at all to being about as omnipresent as a small theater showcase can be. For 10 mild, late September days in St. Petersburg, where it was held this year, New Drama was the hottest ticket and the generator of the most contentious conversations in the city's theater world.

It began as Mikhail Ugarov, the playwright, director and one of the founders of the festival, stepped up to a microphone at a morning discussion, looked around, took a slight breath and proclaimed that the state of new dramatic writing in St. Petersburg was "a catastrophe." He never had to be so provocative again, although he frequently was; the lighted match had been put to the fuse. And yet, while conservatives, traditionalists and skeptics grumbled, cursed and scratched their heads, audiences gathered in hordes to squeeze into overfilled auditoriums. In fact, almost all tickets had been sold out by the second day of the festival, which featured 25 productions, most performed in small spaces seating around 200 spectators. There were also over a dozen new play readings, two days of experimental films, numerous book and project presentations and daily seminar discussions in the morning. Aside from a graying journalist here and there, the lion's share of spectators pushing their way into shows appeared to be in their teens or early 20s.

The accusation that St. Petersburg is lagging behind the rest of the country in its development of innovative drama and theater is hard to refute. Arguably, the first major steps to revealing a new generation of writers in Russia took place in Yekaterinburg a decade ago. It was there that popular writer Nikolai Kolyada began teaching courses in playwriting in 1993, thus providing a springboard for numerous future stars. Kolyada's many former students include Oleg Bogayev and Vasily Sigarev, whose plays are now produced everywhere from Siberia to Chicago.

Moscow, where theaters and directors seemed to have no idea that anyone was creating new plays throughout the 1990s, has become a hotbed for new writing in the last half decade. The creation of two theaters specializing in new work - the Playwright and Director Center in 1998 and Teatr.doc in 2002 - has had an enormous impact on the process in Russia's capital, where other programs, festivals and colloquia dedicated to the topic of contemporary drama have also become commonplace. Parallel to developments in Yekaterinburg and Moscow, a group of enthusiasts headed by the Durnenkov brothers, Vyacheslav and Mikhail, has created a dynamic environment for young writers in the city of Tolyatti.

Vasily Senin, a young director from St. Petersburg who was educated in Moscow and began his career there, told of his difficulties since returning to his hometown. "We have no place where young writers, directors and actors can go to try out new works," he said. "I don't understand why St. Petersburg can't do it if it can be done in Moscow, Yekaterinburg, Tolyatti, Novosibirsk and other cities." Senin called for the creation of a space where artists could develop new plays, "even if no one likes them."

Judging by the response to the majority of New Drama entries, there is little chance of that happening.

At the performance of "The Cultural Layer," a play by the Durnenkov brothers produced by the Golosova-20 Theater Center in Tolyatti, a packed house pitched and rolled with every punch and pun in this funny and sad look at the state of contemporary Russian society and psychology. Three loosely connected segments offered witty and insightful glimpses into the relationships between a grandfather and grandson; a thuggish real estate agent and his underling; and a newlywed couple that falls victim to a crazy neighbor and the killing smog that chokes their city.

In "Shocked Tatyana," a collection of six miniplays staged by Ugarov for the New Drama festival, audiences were delighted and provoked by Georgian playwright Lasha Bugadze's wildly quirky parables of people eating their relatives, giving birth to their parents, and succumbing to mad envy when the neighbor becomes a hero by dying in the war.

"The Fight of the Moldovans for a Cardboard Box," written by Alexander Rodionov for Teatr.doc, was a quasi-naturalistic expose of homeless refugees fighting a losing battle for dignity against the police and sadistic drifters. The play's free-flowing obscenities and scenes of casual sex evoked healthy laughter from many viewers, as did the tirades of an actress planted in the audience who twice played the role of the outraged spectator by entering into shouting matches with actors onstage.

In "Playing the Victim," a comical though merciless fantasy by Vladimir and Oleg Presnyakov produced by the Realny Teatr festival of Yekaterinburg, a young man works for the police by playing the role of crime victims during live, on-site investigations. Ultimately, this indifferent youth, who appears to lack anything resembling a conscience, poisons all of the people closest to him. In discussions surrounding the festival, this play and these authors were frequently named as central to the new drama movement as it currently stands.

Topicality and the striving to slash through the surface of modern political and sociological myths dominated the organized discussions as well as the plays themselves. Echoing what many were saying, Andrei Kuznetsov, the managing director of the Perm Novaya Drama Theater, declared that neither politicians nor those in the media will allow anyone to speak the truth anymore, leaving theater stages as the only forums where real issues can be aired. Eduard Boyakov, a founder of the New Drama festival, suggested that the problem is even more insidious, for, he said, it is not a matter of forced censorship, but rather the willing complicity of people choosing to say publicly only that which is expected of them.

Standing apart from the skirmishes of antiheroes drawn from newspaper headlines was the DAKh Center of Contemporary Art from Kiev, which showed Vladislav Troitsky's production of Klim's "Fallen Angel." Klim, a director by profession, has in recent years begun having success as a writer, often in distinctive and creative adaptations of classic literary works. His "Fallen Angel" is one of five dramas that he has based on Fyodor Dostoevsky's novel "The Idiot," all of which have been staged by Troitsky in Kiev. This one-woman show observes the character Nastasya Filippovna, as performed by Tatyana Vasilenko, in the moments surrounding her murder by her lover Rogozhin, and captures her as she ponders the possibility of her soul being redeemed and resurrected after death. As she admits ironically, "In Russia a man has no time to prepare for the hereafter." Klim's text refines Dostoevsky's characteristically gothic excess into a modern, lucid monologue that is both accessible and capable of carrying all of the philosophical and emotional weight of the original.

For the most part, however, the New Drama festival was not about subtlety or sophistication.

It was, instead, a forum for kicking around new ideas and kicking over old habits.

It may not have made everyone happy - two women angrily stomped out of one show featuring violent homosexual encounters in prison shouting "Shame on you!" - but no one was indifferent to what they heard or saw.

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