The Day, Issue №15
Vadym Dyshkant

In Shukshin's Stories there is room for actors' improvisation and maneuver. They show funny and sad anecdotes from local eccentrics' lives

Moscow – First staged in the late 2008 at the Theater of Nations (the descendant of the Theater of the Friendship of Nations, the USSR celebrity of the 1980s), Shukshin's Stories has since visited many international theater forums. Its tours are scheduled a whole year in advance, and just for these three days, 18th to 20th of March, Kyivites will be able to see the famous play performed at the Russian Drama Theater. To be more precise, only the lucky owners of the quite expensive tickets will be able to do so. By the way, in Moscow it is still no easy matter to get a ticket for Shukshin's Stories.

A lot of things are mixed in this first performance of the celebrated Latvian director on the Moscow stage. However, if his name draws "advanced" theatergoers and professionals, the names of the lead actors Chulpan Khamatova and Yevgeny Mironov (who, as the artistic director of the Theater of Nations, actually invited Hermanis to stage the play) cause a craze among the cinema- and TV lovers.

It goes without saying that the greatest public attraction is the name of Vasily Shukshin, whose prose we devoured in the 1970s. The intrigue is also enhanced by public curiosity: How will a European director interpret the Russian village prose?

Hermanis has made a high-quality "product." The hallmark of Western quality on the performance is a source of joy for some, while others are upset about it. This excellent quality, this masterly and impeccable form, and the generous demonstration of acting skills have overshadowed the original warmth, and almost ousted the tragic, which in Shukshin's prose hid behind the funny stories of the Russian village life.

Yet, one cannot draw the tragic from someone else's life without immersing in it with all of one's soul. Hermanis did not set this aim. Knowledgeable about the Russian tradition of staging village prose (first of all, represented by Dodin and Liubimov's plays set to the prose by Abramov), he took his actors to the Altay, but not with the view to transforming them into local residents. In Shukshin's native village of Srostki, the actors found various village types whom they transformed on stage into a gallery of wonderful theatrical masks.

Keeping a distance from their characters, the performers plunge into the elements of the theater of grotesque and farce, which mocks the reality rather than understands it. The reality itself is documented, albeit with a touch of Eurostyle, in the photographs by Monika Pormale, who, together with the director, acts as the set designer for the performance.

Huge, billboard-style color portraits of the modern residents of that Altay village form the constantly shifting background, against which the actors will unfold the plots of Shukshin's stories. Truck and tractor drivers, salesgirls, nurses, and old men and women stare at the audience, so that we might keep in touch with reality and remember that behind each funny mask there is a human being.

The series of humorous scenes where the dramatic actors are second to no one, including the best comedians, is opened by Styopka's Love. Besides the directly involved characters, two pert village gals appear onstage. Seated on a long bench, they relish fried sunflower seeds and vie in telling the story of Stepan the driver, who fell in love with a beautiful stranger. Usually it takes some time for the spectators to identify one of the girls as Khamatova, and the crabby old man, stretched on the bench with his back to the audience, as Mironov.

In Hermanis' hands (and he is famous for the ability to transform his actors), theater and film celebrities indeed change beyond recognition. It's only natural that Khamatova and Mironov should play here more brilliantly than the others. However, their partners (Yuliya Svezhakova, Yuliya Peresild, Pavel Akimkin, Dmitry Zhuravlyov, and others) have become worthy participants in the star-studded play.

The director gives to all his actors so much freedom and so much room for improvisation, which, however, remains incorporated in the overall structure of the play, that the spectators can only envy the performers' ability to play mischievous in public, to impersonate, brightly and juicily, such a lot of funny and sad anecdotes from the lives of the local cranks.

Mironov naturally has achieved the most success of all here. The crabby old man will only use a change of disguise to turn into a war veteran Bronka from the short story Mille Pardons, Madame!, who relates, quite seriously, tales about how he shot at Hitler. The henpecked husband Seryozhka, who lost his head with passion for a sexy, lascivious nurse (Fingerless), will morph into a no less obsessed – this time, however, with science – hero of the story Microscope.

Mironov has gone even more grotesque in the short story Cut Down to Size as he depicts his fellow countrymen's passion for learning, which was so hard to realize in the village lost in the middle of nowhere. The actor wears a special costume to create the effect of corpulence, so his hero, with a round body and thin arms and legs, looks especially ridiculous. This makes even more ridiculous his insatiable desire to "cut down" in an argument any intellectual visiting their village.

The last of the stories performed on stage was Styopka. Here, Shukshin depicted the illogical, unrestrained search for joy by the Russian soul, thirsty for an everlasting feast. The hero, badly missing his home and family, escapes from imprisonment to embrace his nearest and dearest, and to draw in, together with vodka, the air of freedom – although he only had to serve three more months.

The district police officer who comes to arrest Styopka cannot understand his senseless act. Small wonder. Enforcing law and order is not enough to open all the secret nooks of a human soul. It takes something more than just acumen and iron logic. It takes unconditional love and sympathy for people, which will allow one to look into the abyss of someone's soul and be horrified at the hopelessness of their tragic earthly existence: we look for joy, but eventually get only suffering. Hermanis, one of Europe's best directors, doubtlessly has this love and compassion, which are so sadly lacking in many.