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Layers of Psyche

Источник: "The Моscow Times"
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 secondary importance.

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 Aksyonova).

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 cruel streak.

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.




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