The Forbidden Fruit
Director Dmitry Krymov presents a visually stunning, almost wordless new show loosely inspired by Mikhail Lermontov’s poem “The Demon.”
A curious thing has happened over the last few seasons. As if from behind a blind corner or up from the deep, a major new director has appeared among us.
Dmitry Krymov is making theater like no one else in this or any other Russian city. Playful and mischievous, it unfolds spontaneously, almost willy-nilly in real time, although it is constructed as sturdily as a mahogany table. It is light and airy, as if making no demands, and yet can rise up swiftly to draw blood and plunge us into thought.
Almost astonishingly, Krymov's theater remains a student enterprise for the time being. He works with a group of apprentices who study in his workshop at the Russian Academy of Theater Arts. They have begun to find their way in art thanks to him and, as is always true of good teachers, he is wise and talented enough to let himself be inspired and influenced by his pupils.
What makes the situation even curiouser, as Lewis Carroll would have put it, is that we might call Krymov a grizzled veteran. He is an accomplished and respected designer who debuted 30 years ago this season. The son of the great director Anatoly Efros and the influential critic Natalya Krymova, his theatrical pedigree is unassailable. But for reasons known to him alone, he first tried out the view from the director's chair just four years ago. Since then he has mounted something of his own little revolution.
Krymov's latest is "The Demon: The View from Above" and it plays in the unique Globus Hall of the School of Dramatic Art on Sretenka. It derives its inspiration from Mikhail Lermontov's seminal epic poem "The Demon," although one need know nothing about that to respond to Krymov's production. This is a funny, vivacious and subtly dark encounter with a group of people trying to make bare sense out of a world that is far too mad to have discernible meaning.
It also — maybe primarily — is an elaborate exercise in the live creation of art. Somehow it seems that the most memorable theater, the kind that sticks in the heart and mind, is that which appears as if by magic, ex nihil, and takes form, bumping, rattling, squeaking, fluttering and humming, right before the eyes and ears of the spectator. "The Demon" is a master class in this kind of performance sorcery.
The Globus is a unique space where spectators sit in single rows in three stacked tiers circling a round stage. The effect is rather like sitting on the windowsills of a hollow, non-leaning Tower of Pisa, and looking down into the center. Krymov leaves the stage floor empty, though has it covered in a sheet of white paper.
It is something of a surprise, then, when with a whoosh! and a whump! a formless blob of black material careens down from the ceiling at a startling speed and crashes onto the floor. With almost military efficiency, a dozen or so actors quickly take up places behind the spectators and stare at the motionless object. One young woman finally steps over the railings onto the stage and bravely begins to poke and explore. When the lumpy mass doesn't respond, others join her. Soon, in a fit of frenzied activity, they are blowing the sack of cloth up into an unwieldy, gangly, dangly monster — a demon, one assumes, that has fallen from the heavens. They attach it to ropes and haul it with pulleys back into the theatrical "skies." As they watch it from below, the floor on which they stand begins to sink away from us. In moments, the stage appears to be several meters "underground" and we are staring down at the actors below as one assumes the Demon is doing above us all.
What transpires over the next two hours is something akin to a digest of the history of mankind. Animated pictures projected on the floor beneath us are suggestive but never illustrative. A snake-like figure slithers across the stage. There is a fruit tree — the tree of knowledge? The shadow of a flying demon flaps over a quickly changing landscape — fields, forests, deserts, seas and cities. But once again the demon tumbles to the ground. Colors appear. An armada of ships on the high seas burns and disappears into the churning waters. Chagallian lovers float daintily through the air followed by a sky full of Nazi bombers. By way of animated projection, the floor is awash with images, most of which last long enough to evoke responses in us, but few of which suggest any kind of narrative.
Eventually, Krymov's actors step into the ring and begin acting out new sets of circumstances. These include the Adam and Eve story; the creation of a live version of a Vincent Van Gogh painting; the acting out of Leo Tolstoy escaping his home in Yasnaya Polyana to die at the train station in Astapovo; the burning of Nikolai Gogol's unfinished second volume of "Dead Souls"; the space flight of a Soviet sputnik; a Georgian wedding and dozens of other random or interconnected events from Russian and world history. The skits are wordless, for actions speak infinitely louder than words.
This still tells you nothing, however, since the chief point of all these exercises is to demonstrate Krymov's actors' inventive powers. They create their costumes, their masks, their personas, their props and their settings for each skit on the spot. With the end of each segment, they rip off another layer of white paper on the floor to reveal another blank slate. And then they immediately throw themselves into creating the world — or, at least, a small aspect of it — from scratch again. The entire show is a feast of child's play, of mad artists at work, of imposters run amuck. Van Gogh's sunflowers appear as actors toss old vinyl albums in patterns on the floor and tape them together with duct tape. The actors themselves transform into Van Gogh's crows in the wheat fields by donning black-beaked masks.
Krymov and his charges create a cornucopia of life experiences, rich, funny, ironic, poignant and frightening. A young Jewish girl, happy on her bicycle, copes with the deaths of her parents and their ascension to heaven. The festive Georgian wedding, perhaps inspired by a Niko Pirosmani painting, is crashed by a figure looking suspiciously like the infamous head of the Soviet secret police, Lavrenty Beria. In one hilarious central scene, a baby girl in swaddling is forced to sing, dance and play a violin as she wails to be fed her bottle. Evil, death and perfidy percolate freely in and among the delights, quirks and sorrows of the human experience.
Above it all, ultimately mute and forgotten, hangs the sinister demon.
"The Demon" is yet another of Krymov's growing number of starkly unique and startlingly inventive theater productions. You won't see anything like this anywhere else. And see it you must, if you have any interest in what heights Russian theater is rising to these days.
John Freedman, the newspaper "The Moscow Times", 08.12.2006