Monday, February 4, 2013

Family Happiness: Tolstoy on the Rack

Ksenia Kutepova and Alexey Kolubkov star in Family Happiness” (Photo: A. Sergeev)

Whatever has secured the reputation of the Moscow Theatre-Atelier Piotr Fomenko as one of Russia’s best theatre companies certainly isn’t in evidence in Family Happiness, which I caught on the Boston leg of its American tour. The production, which premiered in Moscow in 2000 and is performed in Russian with English supertitles, is an adaptation (no playwright is listed) of Tolstoy’s beautiful novella tracking the arc of a marriage between a recently orphaned eighteen-year-old girl, Masha, and Sergey Mihailovich, her neighbor and guardian. The marriage begins in a kind of other-worldly bliss but reaches a point of crisis when, after they have begun to raise children, Sergey takes Masha to St. Petersburg and reacts with revulsion as she gets caught up in the social whirl that their provincial home has denied her. The story is about the way the cracks in a relationship that have been covered up by romantic optimism can suddenly appear, focusing the partners on incompatibilities they’re shocked to discover have been in place since the outset. Masha and Sergey’s marriage somehow endures the crisis and passes into a third, compromised phase that Masha (who is the narrator) sees as true “family happiness”:

That day ended the romance of our marriage: the old feeling became a precious irrecoverable remembrance; but a new feeling of love for my children and the father of my children laid the foundation of a new life and a quite different happiness; and that life and happiness have lasted to the present time.

Kutepova, Kolubkov & Galina Tunina (Photo: Jennifer Taylor)
The stage version, directed by Fomenko himself, more or less dispenses with the last act, leaving the couple in a state of banal acceptance of their flawed relations but not a happy one. Is that supposed to be a more contemporary vision? I wasn’t aware that Tolstoy needed to be “problematized”; he is, after all, probably literature’s greatest chronicler of the complexities and heartbreaks of the marital condition (or, at least, he’s tied with Chekhov for that distinction). But my complaint about the ending is relatively minor; it isn’t as if I’d come to the end of a thrilling performance and felt let down by an unsatisfying conclusion. Fomenko’s production is a post-modern treatment of the narrative that lacks exploration of character, dramatic tension – indeed, any sort of shape. As Masha, Ksenia Kutepova dances endlessly around the stage, repeating her lines and especially key words (like “Petersburg”) in different pitches and in different rhythms, play-acting “youthful” and “frantic” and “melancholy” rather than providing any suggestion of who the character is or how she arrived at any of these moods. At the top of the first act, she skitters through the audience with a black veil over her face, whispering, “Hush, hush!” over and over again; it’s a striking opening. But the second act begins exactly the same way. Everything we see, in fact, we see repeatedly. I lost track of the amount of times Kutepova stepped over the suitcase stage right that made its first appearance with Sergey (Alexey Kolubkov). The first time, I thought, Oh, I see: Sergey has interrupted her life and she can’t get around him. The seventh or eighth time, I thought, Will someone take that fucking prop off the stage? (I’m pleased to report that it does get removed in act two, when Sergey hurls it into the wings, after he’s thrown himself on the floor with his head inside it.)

Fomenko doesn’t show much talent for creating stage images; there are one or two moments worth looking at in the first act, none in the second. The play feels like a hopelessly attenuated acting exercise – the kind you don’t invite an audience to sit through. In the second act an Italian marquis (Ilya Lyubimov) conducts an attempted seduction of Masha in hushed French and the supertitles don’t bother to translate their lines. For reasons that aren’t clear to me, Masha makes all her costume changes in full view of the audience, and in a number of first-act scenes she doesn’t quite get her clothes on, so she skips around the stage in a slip. Poor Tolstoy – he’s certainly taking a beating. As Amanda Shubert pointed out last week on Critics at Large, Joe Wright’s recent movie of Anna Karenina is a disaster, but at least you know what his and the screenwriter Tom Stoppard’s terrible ideas are supposed to mean. Family Happiness might as well be taking place on Mars. Luckily in both cases you can go back to the texts and revel in them.

At odd moments during the show, I cast my mind back to the dramatization of another great Tolstoy novella, The Kreutzer Sonata, that I saw a few years ago with Larry Pine (Dr. Astrov in Vanya on 42nd Street) as the sole actor. It was one of the most mesmerizing pieces of acting – and one of the most entrancing shows – I’ve ever had the good fortune to come across. (I went back to see it again a couple of weeks later.) Tolstoy’s work is so dramatic that it turns itself into theatre while you read it. Fomenko’s feat is a perverse one: he takes an inherently dramatic story and turns it into prosaic chatter.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny ReviewThe Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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