Lyubimov Still Fit to Tell "Tales" at 92

By John Freedman

The Moscow Times

“Tales” is a visually bold show based on stories by Hans Christian Andersen, Oscar Wilde and Charles Dickens.

It only seems fitting that each new theater season in Moscow begins with a birthday. And what a birthday! Yury Lyubimov, the founder of the world-renowned Taganka Theater and one of the most important, prolific and unique Russian theater artists of the last half-century, was born Sept. 30, 1917.

For those who are mathematically challenged, let me translate: Lyubimov is preparing to celebrate No. 92.

The man himself appears to take little note of these events. He is in tremendous physical condition and even recently began sporting a hip, new short haircut. That famous smile of his, reaching all the way up his handsome face to his dancing, ironic eyes, speaks not of age but of youth and vitality.

The measure of a director is what he accomplishes, however, and with 110 productions to his name, Lyubimov?s achievements are astonishing. Most recently, he staged “Tales,” a compilation of stories by 19th-century writers Hans Christian Andersen, Oscar Wilde and Charles Dickens. This is a conscious departure for the veteran director, an attempt to reveal timeless themes in works generally relegated to the sphere of children?s literature.

Visually, “Tales” is extremely bold. Most of its scenes are played out on a series of large and small trampolines that are quickly and easily moved around the stage. Characters leap, fly, tumble and bounce, occasionally being illuminated in lunar spotlights that cast their soaring shadows on the theater?s back brick wall. An acrobatic violinist (Anna Popova) spins on a trapeze, playing her instrument upside down as often as not.

Magicians stalk the stage, weaving in and out of the action, performing unexpected tricks. Objects burst into flames, candles multiply and disappear, kerchiefs appear out of nowhere and fly off horizontally, a champagne bottle is crumpled up and tossed away as if it were paper litter.

The actors are dressed in stylized costumes, inspired by the sketches of Rustam Khamdamov, that mix aspects of renaissance styles with 1930s athletic garb. It is often difficult to say whether we are looking at a group of almost-modern school children or escapees from a Van Dyck painting. The simplified ruff collars that many wear might even be fallen angels? halos that now hang around their necks like horse collars.

The tales Lyubimov adapts are Andersen?s “The Little Mermaid,“ Wilde?s “The Happy Prince“ and Dickens? „A Christmas Carol” and „The Cricket on the Hearth.” Having put enormous effort into creating the show?s unusual form, the director purposefully kept the telling of the tales as simple as possible. Each is a straightforward narrative with a clear and present moral.

Andersen?s story reminds us what a joy and pain it is to have a human heart. Wilde touches on the extreme sacrifice that is bound up in doing good deeds. Dickens, naturally, lays bare the evil of the hard-hearted but never lets us forget that even the most monstrous person is capable of rehabilitation.

For all the energy and physical activity that characterize this production, it occasionally can appear nondescript and plain. One of the reasons for this may be tied to something Lyubimov has increasingly sought to do in recent years — integrate a new generation of young performers into his troupe.

No one will ever be able to accuse Lyubimov of resting on his laurels, and that is unquestionably admirable. What does raise questions, however, is the director?s insistence on making room for new faces by pushing his veteran actors aside or out of the picture altogether.

The best moments in “Tales” are those led by actors who have worked with Lyubimov for years or decades. Alexei Grabbe, who joined the Taganka in 1971, brings weight and paradox to his interpretation of Scrooge. Timur Badalbeili, entering his 16th season at the theater, brings a crusty irony to his handling of the Scrooge-like Tackleton in “Cricket on the Hearth.” Playing the ancient Mrs. Fielding in the same piece, Marina Politseimako taps into a sense of history and mystery even though her time on stage is severely limited. The actress has been with Lyubimov since 1965.

By comparison, most of the younger performers come across as faceless and colorless. This is an added problem in a show that is structured on quick transitions and actors doubling up on as many as four different roles.

But this is also true: As Yury Lyubimov approaches the age of 92, he still brings more freshness and inquisitiveness to his work than most directors two-thirds his age.

“Tales” (Skazki) plays Sept. 16 at 7 p.m. at the Taganka Theater, located at 76 Zemlyanoi Val. Metro Taganskaya. Tel. 915-1217, 915-1015. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.


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