nytheatre.com review by Amy Lee Pearsall
October 7, 2010
It is often said that in order to understand a place, one should visit it. In the absence of the means necessary, the next best thing would be if that world could somehow come to us. Such a sojourn arrived in the American premiere of Moscow's Theater Art Studio's production of The Boys, a play based on nine chapters of Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. The performance in Russian with English subtitles projected on the upstage wall left me longing for the ability to catch all the subtle nuances of the language that were sadly lost on my American ears. Happily, the translation and performances were strong enough to transcend the language barrier.
Alexey Karamazov, here portrayed by Alexandr Koruchekov, comes across a group of boys taunting young Ilyusha Snegiryov (Sergey Pirnyak). Ilyusha, filled with rage at having seen his father's beard pulled during an altercation outside of a pub, has pulled a penknife on another boy at school, throws stones at those who mock him, and even goes so far as to bite Karamazov as he tries to mediate between Ilyusha and the unruly group of boys in the street. Karamazov, coincidentally the brother of Ilyusha's father's attacker, goes to the Snegiryov family home in an attempt to extend an olive branch. As Ilyusha's alcoholic but devoted father, Alexey Vertkov's performance is a revelation whether he is spitting his food while talking or proudly stomping on the money Karamazov offers, even though that money would mean a much better life for his family.
Shortly thereafter, we are told that Ilyusha has developed tuberculosis. With the onset of this illness, his classmates have seemingly forgiven him for his rash behavior and have taken to visiting him on a regular basis at the encouragement of Karamazov. As I have not read The Brothers Karamazov, I do not know how the story progresses in the book. That said, as the viewer of the play, I wished for a less jarring transition in terms of the progression of character relationships.
With Ilyusha's bedside visitors comes his schoolmate, Nikolay Krasotkin (in a delightful 13-going-on-30 performance by Andrey Shibarshin). Nikolay, earlier the victim of Ilyusha's penknife, had a falling out with the much younger Ilyusha when the boy unwittingly harmed Nikolay's dog who then ran away. Having hesitated to come earlier as he was uncertain of Karamazov and his motives, Nikolay shows up on the eve of Ilyusha's death with a dog that looks very much like his old one. Ilyusha, believing the new dog is the old, is relieved to not only have his much beloved friend return to him but also to see the dog is alive. I unfortunately wanted to see the dog (Sergey Abroskin) put well out of his misery. Whether or not it was the intention of director Sergey Zhenovach, the character of the dog pulled focus every time he opened his mouth. While a useful device, I think this performance could have been taken down several decibels and still been effective.
The boys, all played by adult males, are believable as a band of youths. While more often seen than heard, the three women on stage help to create the world of the play. Anna Rud as Ilyusha's brainsick mother along with Ilyusha's sisters as portrayed by Tatyana Volkova and Miriam Sekhon flesh out the feel of a simple home fraught with both hardship and dreams of better days.
Design elements for the production are sparse but inspired. Costume designer Maria Utrobina dresses the boys in double-breasted military style jackets and hats. Colors are generally drab except for the moment when Ilyusha dies and appears in white under a strong spot orchestrated by lighting designer Evgeny Vinogradov. A small toy cannon rigged with gunpowder made everyone in the audience jump when it went off, and a scene where the boys fly kites made of white tissue paper on stage was truly poetic.
It is regrettable that The Boys has such a short run at the Baryshnikov Arts Center; it deserves to be seen and appreciated by more people. I walked away from this production feeling as though I had for the first time seen a Russian play performed in the manner and tradition in which Russian psychological dramas were intended to be performed, and was grateful to have had the opportunity even if I did not understand every word of it.