Layers of Psyche
February 13 – 19, 2004
Writers have always doubled as psychologists, and vice versa. In two new
productions of plays by psychological writers Alexander Stroganov and
Anton Chekhov, the subconscious takes center stage.
By John Freedman
It was Anton Chekhov as much as any other who opened the door to
psychology in the theater. So perhaps the next logical step is for
psychologists like Alexander Stroganov to write plays. Stroganov may not
be the first to cross over into the sphere of drama from psychology, but
he is the first in Russia to have had some success doing it.
Both Chekhov and Stroganov are represented in recent productions - "The
Seagull" by the former at the Theater Na Pokrovke and the latter's "Tea
Ceremony," a production of the Stary Theater playing at the new Theater
Center Na Strastnom.
Stroganov's plays - his best-known to date is "Ornithology" - are
slightly skewed, dreamlike explorations of the subconscious. Watching
them is rather like gaining access to pictures of someone's mind while
they are asleep. They are filled with repetitions, unexplained leaps of
fantasy, obscure references and heavy hints at taboo relationships.
It is characteristic of Stroganov that the psychologist in him always
retains the upper hand over the playwright. We feel the pressure of a
healer working on us, encouraging us to explore ignored aspects of our
experience for our own betterment. We are asked to descend into a
strange world of psychological dysfunction laced with pain primarily
because the author clearly sees that act as having therapeutic powers.
The dramatic components of these mind games tend to occupy a place of
In "Tea Ceremony," director Karen Nersesyan was especially sensitive to
the needs and interests of Dr. Stroganov. With designer Vadim Tallerov,
he employed a slightly otherworldly environment in which a transparent
screen usually separates the audience from the characters. A second
screen in the back sets off still another plane of action that, perhaps,
corresponds to a deeper layer of the subconscious. The ethereal
atmosphere is enhanced by the dim, colored lighting refracting off the
screens, and by two musicians who play the Thereminvox (Yana and Lana
The play has a cyclical nature, with the same basic conversation being
started over and over again, taking on new shades and themes as it
develops. A troubled, frustrated man (Vyacheslav Nevinny Jr.) comes to a
calm, ever-smiling woman (Darya Kazeyeva) to engage her in talk. The
relationship that binds them is deep but uncertain since the ritualistic
nature of their meetings - a Japanese tea ceremony conducted by the
woman - obscures many of the behavioral signs that might otherwise help
the audience define their union.
Is this woman, who finds herself answering to different names, the man's
lover? His wife? His mother? His childhood neighbor? Is she all of these
in one? Whatever the answer, the journey of the performance takes us
back into the past of a still young, but already aging man who has lost
his taste for poetry, is at odds with his surroundings, is losing his
health, is increasingly short-tempered and has developed a dangerous
The woman, for her part, commands great powers of concentration,
feeling, understanding and forgiveness. She invariably retains her
stoically cheery countenance and is always ready to punish herself by
pouring hot water on the inside of her thigh when the man demands it.
She also is the one who will strip the man and give him a bath that
cleanses him against his will.
Nersesyan's production is conscientiously directed and acted. I can
imagine it stirring animated discussions if it were to be performed at a
conference of practicing psychologists. For the theater, however, it
strikes me as being excessively clinical and insufficiently dramatic.