Very quickly, we learn that things are not what we expect them to be. The performance space at St. Ann’s has been configured into a long, narrow rectangle. Once seated, we gaze at a dirty white wall of panels and an assemblage of seven grimy buckets. A sloppy white line running parallel to the edge of the audience subtly, unevenly bisects the space. We are warned that at intermission, we must vacate the theater with all our belongings, as the space will be reconfigured during a 25-minute pause. On alert, we anticipate that nothing here will be permanent, as it seems to be, or predictable.
We are not disappointed. Broom handles become radio antennae, rags used to clean the floor are revealed to be an old dress, whose recognizable shape both comforts and shocks us, even before it is worn, and black splatters of paint are given hats, belts and hair, suddenly becoming our ancestors, alive and animated along the back wall. Eyeglasses and shoes are children, hanging jackets are ghosts, projections we thought were still suddenly move. It is clear that these artists from the design-centered Dmitry Krymov Lab of the Moscow Theater School of Dramatic Art, guided by their founder, are traveling one step ahead of our collective imagination. And yet, the constant transformation we witness does not feel rushed or jarring, rather it feels natural, as if this is how art and life both proceed: one thing leading to the next and the next and so on. Change is inevitable. Stagnancy is death, but stillness can be beautifully alive.
The theater magic on display here is a simple and straightforward manipulation of modest means, but from the first moment, the audience is willingly transported into a lyrical, impressionistic exploration of history and life. Sparse Russian text, with English subtitles projected quietly above the stage, is underscored by musical and vocal compositions by the performers as they pull back the layers of this visual cake. Mostly, we understand that we are in for a spectacle, but one that feels supported by the inquiry from which it stems: Where we come from (Part One, Geneology) and How easily we can be destroyed (Part Two, Shostakovitch).
How can we piece together an epic idea like war, loss, oppression, or confinement? How can we illuminate the human condition that continually endures injustice, debilitating compromise, and pain? Is there room inside these tragedies for joy, peace or beauty? Theater, since its inception, has been a tool for man to explore these very big ideas, often without conclusion, agenda or intent other than as potential illumination or reminder. Here, we are given a sense of history without the supposedly necessary details of a history lesson and we learn about the life of a man through collision after collision of metaphor. It suddenly makes sense that when Christ is born, he is a blanket filled with the shoes of dead children, and that a tormented artist at a piano can stay still while the walls of his world literally spin around him.
Perhaps I have given away too much, but this show is nearly sold-out, and the chances of you seeing it during this incarnation are small, though I very much encourage you to try. Try, if only to remind yourself what it is like to strive for something, to desire, to ache to breathe in someone else’s space. Krymov is also a painter, who abandoned the theater in the 1980’s to dedicate himself fully to painting. He returned to the theater after his father died in 2002, transcending the bifurcation that unfortunately has us compartmentalize ourselves and our work. We can learn from his merging of form, of idea. Let this black and white visual world wash over you, removing a layer of the crust that keeps your artistry from its fullest expression. Let this ensemble’s bold beauty remind you of your own. This is the power of art.