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Backstage Confessions /

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Backstage Confessions /

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In Repress and Excite, anew work bythe influential playwright Maxim Kurochkin, astar actor isforced toconfront the result ofpast misdeeds

In anincreasingly rich field ofinfluential Russian playwrights, Maxim Kurochkin stands alone. Others may bemore famous, prolific, shocking, accessible orbankable. Next tothe Presnyakov brothers, staged all over the world, Kurochkin's international impact remains minimal. Compared tothe pop-star status ofYevgeny Grishkovets orIvan Vyrypayev, Kurochkin isvirtually unknown outside theater circles. Measured against the subtly subliminal plays ofOlga Mukhina orthe intricate literary dramas ofMikhail Ugarov, Kurochkin's can appear tobecut out ofsteel with anax. Onthe other hand, his work might look tame beside the violent urban studies ofYury Klavdiyev. With adozen and ahalf plays under his belt, Kurochkin isn't yet dreaming ofmatching Nikolai Kolyada's 100.

And yet the argument isthere tobemade that Maxim Kurochkin ispresently Russia's most important playwright. Increasingly, helooks like the writer who iscapturing the most comprehensive, complex and insightful picture ofthe time and place inwhich helives. Moreover, for all the significant contributions Kurochkin's colleagues have made toanew manner ofwriting inrecent years, his texts are the ones redefining how aplay iswritten and what itiswritten about.

Kurochkin isamythologizer, amulticulturist and more than abit ofaprankster. He's the kind ofartist that the phrase everything and the kitchen sink was invented todescribe. Heisachild ofhis age, and sohis plays are usually amalgamations ofincompatible elements mixed languages, mutually exclusive cultural traditions, topsy-turvy sexual orientations, high poetry segueing into comic book parodies.

If pushed goahead, push me! Iwould suggest Kurochkin's masterpiece remains Kitchen, that brash mix ofancient Nibelungs and modern Russians inachurning, epic tale ofkitsch and vengeance. His latest, however Repress and Excite atthe EtCetera Theater may well behis most important todate. Kurochkin isnothing ifnot unpredictable, but hepulled off something here Ithink noone could have imagined: Hewrote astraightforward melodrama oncontemporary themes. It's almost aboulevard drama, for God's sake.

Repress and Excite, however, isaboulevard drama toend all boulevard dramas, ascrewy tale offriendship, jealousy and marriage onthe rocks. Itisalso abackstage play that exhausts the topic oftheatrical intrigues atleast until the next generation comes along. Oh, yes, and itisanassault onmodern times aswell asagesture ofrespect for the past apast that Kurochkin summarily strangles, buries and embellishes, figuratively speaking, with aneon sign declaring R.I.P. Itasserts that anew age has dawned and it's long past time toget onwith life and history.

You see, this iswhat makes Kurochkin such acompelling playwright heembraces all points ofview. Ifanyone can ever resurrect the word democracy from the pummeling ithas taken oflate from iniquitous politicians, itmight besomeone like Kurochkin. Here isanartist who instinctively knows that, asBob Dylan said sosimply and directly, you're right from your side and I'm right from mine. Kurochkin's vision ofthe world isnot linear, hierarchical orjudgmental. Itiscyclical, all-inclusive and fundamentally paradoxical. Everyone isright inKurochkin's plays and everyone iswrong. That's the given. Now gomake sense ofit.

In Repress and Excite the superb actor Alexander Kalyagin plays acharacter called the Good Actor. He's aformer provincial kid who made itbig inthe capital. Now he's temporarily back inhis hometown staying with his wife Sveta Two (Natalya Blagikh) near his old classmate and friend, Fish (Vyacheslav Zakharov). Fish, akindly, peacemaking sort, desperately wants the Good Actor todrop bythe local theater institute totoast aformer colleague onhis anniversary. The Good Actor, aprime candidate for aheart attack and stroke inone fell swoop, would indeed rather drop dead than honor this man hehas held abitter grudge against for decades.

In the fashion ofFeydeau orScribe, Kurochkin cranks his play's intrigue tight inthe first three exchanges. Faithfully, ifalso sarcastically, this work observes all traditional dramatic rules even asitdemolishes them. Onthis level, itfunctions flawlessly asafarcical depiction ofpersonal con games and professional quarrels. But onanother, itisasymphonic expos ofthe social and historical forces that assault every human being attempting tolive alife.

The Good Actor isoppressed bythe past inthe person ofFish and his call tohonor moral debts incurred inyouth. The future rises uptotake achunk out ofthe Good Actor's self-esteem inthe figure ofthe Roguish Student (Anatoly Zavalyov), apupil ofthe actor inMoscow and someone who perhaps will one day eclipse him. This young smart aleck prepares asoliloquy from Anton Chekhov's The Seagull for anexam and, tohis teacher's horror, boorishly, vindictively and hilariously mangles Chekhov beyond recognition byreciting lines belonging toafemale character.

Couldn't you find any male monologues inChekhov? the actor asks darkly.

Yeah, but they were even more stupid, the student shoots back.

The present exacts heavy emotional payment inprosaic ways. Although the actor considers himself aman ofprinciple, ashady past affair with the young Sveta One (Maria Skosyreva) casts doubt onhis treatment not only ofhis wife, but ofFish, who isSveta One's father. Atrip toapsychologist (Igor Artashonov) earns the actor the disconcerting advice that the way totreat scum like him istorepress and excite them.

Now there's the perfect formula for the age oftriumphant technology: afail-safe,self-perpetuating recipe tokeep the world turning, psychologists inbusiness, businesses inprofits, actors inroles and the common individual inaconstant state ofdebilitating stress.

The aloof Preacher (Amadu Mamadakov) with the poise and prudence ofaForbes 500 financial manager cannot reach the Good Actor atall and doesn't really try, but the actor unexpectedly reveals avulnerable side inhis relationship with his father (Alexander Davydov). The world inwhich this old man grew uphas long been classified ascorrupt, wicked and defunct. Why, then, domemories ofthat time evoke such rich and valuable thoughts and emotions? Perhaps hanging value judgments onpeople and the eras they inhabit isequally corrupt?

Kalyagin directed this three-ring circus ofaplay with acool eye and steady hand, allowing the text tobeheard clearly and providing his actors freedom toexplore their characters. Hecoaxed especially entertaining performances from Zakharov and Zavyalov. But itisKalyagin's own prodigious performance ofamorally crippled, yet undeniably appealing, man that raises this production tothe height ofthe play itself. One has the sense that Repress and Excite offers aglimpse atasparring match between two titans Kalyagin and Kurochkin aseach angles toilluminate what heconsiders most important inthis story. Their battle isour gain.

Designer Emil Kapelyush provided ascintillating environment that, through simple objects and penetrating lighting (designed byAnatoly Kuznetsov), suggests but does not depict interiors and exteriors. Attimes, mobile drops create images Ifound reminiscent ofVladimir Tatlin's famous, unbuilt Monument tothe Third International from the early 20th century. Perhaps Iimagined this significance-laden reference, but asone ofRussia's greatest cultural symbols one that speaks ofthe promise ofthe future and humanity's eternal failure tofulfill that promise itseemed tofit Kurochkin's underlying premise too snugly tobecoincidental.

What Idon't doubt isthis: Maxim Kurochkin has produced another masterwork. Repress and Excite will beleading audiences toencounters with the past, the present and the future for years tocome.



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The Moscow Times, 2.02.2007


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