Dmitry Krymov's "Opus No. 7" is a stunning mix of visual images in a play that looks separately at the Holocaust and composer Dmitry Shostakovich.
Extinction is an integral part of the world we inhabit. Tigers, languages, peoples, ice caps, wisdom — you name it, it's going extinct. "Opus No. 7," the latest production from the extraordinarily resourceful director Dmitry Krymov at the School of Dramatic Art, doesn't go nearly that far afield. And yet, extinction, in its most brutal and mindless forms, is what this breathtaking show is about.
In Part One, "Genealogy," Krymov and composer Alexander Bakshi present a bone-chilling requiem to the Jews of Eastern Europe, whose unique way of life was exterminated by the Nazis in World War II.
"Shostakovich," the show's second half, is a sometimes hilarious, sometimes touching, but more often menacing look at the myth, personality and music of the great Soviet-era composer Dmitry Shostakovich. At the heart of this segment is the precarious position that artists occupy in relation to individuals possessing excessive power and inferior sensibilities. While artists may be destroyed, their art — at least when we're lucky — is not.
Krymov, who by training is an artist and designer, has emerged in the last half decade as one of the most inventive directors in Moscow. This has been evident in each of his vastly different shows, and "Opus No. 7" is no exception. The piece comprises a stunning mix of visual images, many of which are capable of making one's blood run cold. Abstract images of Orthodox Jews splashed on a wall in black paint explode into death furnaces blowing smoke and a hail of paper over the audience as if they were the ashes of incinerated bodies. Or, as in "Shostakovich," a half dozen actors furiously drag around rusty, battered pianos as if they were bumper cars gone berserk, ramming them into each another in a cacophony of grinding, colliding steel. It is the very antithesis of what we generally consider to be music, but the perfect portrait of art and artists hounded into a corner and stripped of dignity.
A central principle of Krymov's art is transformation. It's an exaggeration, but under this director's supervision almost anything can become something else in the blink of an eye. Take actress Anna Sinyakina playing a grimy washerwoman mopping the floor as we enter the hall. Before long, she goes through some comical gyrations beneath her oversized overcoat and emerges as a pregnant opera singer wearing the very rag of a dress with which she was just wiping up piles of dirt. By the end of this first segment, she will give birth to a child named Jesus Christ.
The cast of seven is in constant flux throughout "Genealogy." Musicians become actors playing witnesses to the Holocaust. Actors become musicians performing a requiem to the victims. All of them are artists who draw or paint people and objects that come to life in some unexpected way. And all interact with life-sized photos projected on the dirty back wall, the images of which come to life as echoes of individuals long dead or as the Nazis who tormented them. In one jarring moment, an SS officer projected cinematically on the wall approaches a baby carriage which he suddenly gives a swift kick. At that instant a real baby carriage filled with tattered baby shoes bursts through the wall and comes to rest at the feet of the spectators in the first row. The baby shoes, put together with pairs of glasses that begin popping up as if by magic in the cardboard wall, become something of a class portrait of murdered children. Bakshi's music, like the texts written by poet Lev Rubinshtein, is as conspicuous by its absence and its silences as by its presence. The subtle, brittle, fluttering notes of a coloratura soprano seem to have weighted, textured spaces written between them. The rustling of people scurrying about the paper-strewn stage is reminiscent of the silence ghosts might keep. Blurts, blats, huffing and puffing from a tuba or a muted mini-cornet all remind us how sound can fill a hall after there has been none. Swaths of Jewish song, American gospel and an oratorio soar briefly but powerfully over it all, tying everything together in a mix of tradition and eclecticism.
Rubinshtein was every bit as miserly with his words. Short quotes from Genesis intertwine with long lists of colorful names, presumably those of individuals exterminated in the camps. In one extended scene, actor Mikhail Umanets rustles through the debris on stage, pulling out tiny photos of people and telling short stories characterizing them – one was always silent; another refused to escape from Kiev because he thought he was too old. These snippets of information are all the more affecting for their utter inadequacy – entire human universes are reduced to a single, seemingly inconsequential trait. And, yet, the people are gone while the stories remain.
"Shostakovich" begins with something of a joke, although a sinister undertone is evident immediately. A scruffy, unruly boy is led on stage by what appears to be his mother or grandmother, a towering, 4-meter tall puppet. Each time the boy (played with earnest, deadpan humor by Sinyakina) breaks free, the monstrous woman pulls him back into the folds of her skirt with a gentle, though firm hand. Eventually, she sits among the spectators to watch the bespectacled child at play. This is Shostakovich, who is utterly fascinated by everything musical – what makes sounds, how a piano is made and how one can play on and in it.
Krymov presents the composer as a character drawn from folklore, whose fate and personality represent all artists of the Soviet era. Encouraged, honored and hounded mercilessly by Mother Russia and those who unquestioningly do her bidding, Shostakovich is increasingly put upon. Although his creative spirit never dies, he is forced to say things he does not believe (by way of sound recordings of Shostakovich's actual public speeches) and write music he might otherwise not have written. He is forced to go through unbelievable contortions, symbolized here by a hair-raising acrobatic act of Shostakovich dangling precariously from a human chandelier hanging over a piano.
But this is not the "broken man" many historians speak of. This is an individual who bears the full brunt of a system whose method is to destroy anyone and anything that dare not be normal. Krymov's Shostakovich is a martyr who somehow – that is, through his music – rises above even the worst humiliations. He is stabbed through the chest by a sadistic bureaucrat pinning an enormous medal on his lapel. Along with such friends and colleagues as the director Vsevolod Meyerhold and the writers Vladimir Mayakovsky, Anna Akhmatova and Isaac Babel, he becomes a target in a human firing range.
"Opus No. 7" is a dark, disturbing work. It is also astonishing in its theatrical originality, the freshness of its presentation and the precision of its performance. And it suggests that even after all is lost, something is retained.
John Freedman, The Moscow Times, 31.10.2008