#29 - JRL 2009-230 - JRL Home
Moscow Times
December 17, 2009
Rare Play That Looks at Past Meeting the Present
By John Freedman

Drama has been one of the most vital art forms in Russia for most of the last decade.

Vladislava Fekete, a playwright and the director of the Theater Institute of Slovakia, actually takes that notion further. She describes “the spectacular comeback of Russian drama and theater” in the late 1990s in a new issue of Kod, a Slovak journal, and adds that by the 2000s Russian drama and theater had become “an important part of each big European meeting and presentation.”

One of the reasons for this global impact is that Russian playwrights were taking on characters, situations and issues not explored as thoroughly in the other arts or, especially, in the media. I’ve said it before, and I’m sure that I’ll say it many more times: If you are interested in Russia for any reason, and you are not paying attention to what new playwrights are writing, you are missing much of this country’s story.

Having said that, let me poke a stick in the spokes of my own wheels.

For all the challenging plays that have dissected modern Russian society, I have found one thing lacking ­ a concerted attempt to discern where contemporary Russia meets the past that gave birth to it. One often gets the impression that new Russian playwrights feel as though they came into being ex nihilo, that they invented themselves and their world the moment that they put their fingers to the computer keyboard.

For this reason, I find Nina Belenitskaya’s “Pavlik Is My God” to be a fascinating play that we can call “new” in more ways than one. As directed by Yevgeny Grigoryev for the Joseph Beuys Theater, which performs at Aktovy Zal, I’m not sure that it is shown off to best advantage. But I am impressed that it exists at all.

Pavlik Morozov is one of the most notorious figures ­ better to say “myths” ­ in Soviet history. Supposedly, he turned in his dad for behavior unbecoming of a Soviet citizen, then was murdered in 1932 by his angry grandfather. Soviet authorities held up the boy’s betrayal of his father for decades as a shining morality tale of how a good citizen puts one’s country before one’s own interests.

Research in recent decades has decisively shown that ­ aside from a 14-year-old boy being murdered under shady circumstances ­ the story was bogus, and the myth was manufactured as a propaganda tool.

But Belenitskaya’s purpose was not so much to reconsider this seminal chapter of Soviet mythology as to find that place where it makes contact with the world that she inhabits. Her real intent was to explore what it means in the modern world to break with one’s father, and to wish him ill or even dead.

A young woman (Maria Kostikova) is angry that her father abandoned their family. As she contemplates whether murdering him would be a proper punishment, she invokes the ghost of her hero Pavlik Morozov (Donatas Grudovich). Pavlik, who is struggling to break free of the plaster statue in which he has been imprisoned for decades, is disdainful of the girl’s efforts.

“Everything they say about me is a lie,” he mutters.

As the girl learns that Pavlik’s story was nothing like what she thought, and as she continues to protest her father’s unforgivable treatment of her, she begins to experience a revelation. Perhaps the lives of others are more complex than we thought. Perhaps the past is not so cut-and-dried. Perhaps vengeance is not such a great solution to problems after all.

I must say I wanted more from this show and play than what they delivered. The play appears to jump rather nervously from the girl’s thoughts to those of Pavlik and others. The production is so brief as to be little more than a sketch that ends before it gets going. It also suffers from the fact that numerous attempts to involve spectators in the action are too timid to successfully unite the actors and the audience.

And yet, there is that impressive sense of a writer and a theater taking on a topic that many continue to ignore. Whatever its failings, “Pavlik” is an open and intriguing declaration that today’s Russia and yesterday’s Soviet Union are blood brothers. It is the responsibility of the young, the play suggests in part, to determine what that means.

Designer Sofya Yegorova provided an interesting environment including video screens projecting contemporary shots of the village where Pavlik Morozov lived, and costume designer Anna Selyanina created an effective statue-like outfit for Grudovich.

“Pavlik Is My God” (Pavlik ­ Moi Bog) resumes performances in January at Aktovy Zal, located at 18 Perevedyonovsky Pereulok. Metro Baumanskaya. Tel. (499) 265-3935, www.aktzal.ru. Running time: 1 hour, 10 minutes.

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