Leaps of imagination
John Freedman | The Moscow Times | 2011 | articleOriginal

Boris Yukhananov might have been a shaman, had he been born in another place and time. He might have been a snake oil salesman in the Wild West in the 19th century. As it is, in Moscow in the first decade of the 21st century, he is a theater director.

For the most part, however, Yukhananov is like no theater director you know. This is not an artist who stages a show, unveils it to the public, then goes on to his next project. This is a director who breaks all the rules - while devoting himself to a rigorous study of the rules of his trade. He is never satisfied with any­thing he accomplishes - in fact the word “accomplishment" may not be in his vocabulary. For Yukhananov, the journey and the search are all there is.

His latest production at the School of Dramatic Art is “LaboraTORIA The Golem”. It claims to be a version of “The Golem," a play by the Yiddish playwright Halper Leivik, although it is hardly that. Its subtitle declares the performance a "Viennese Rehearsal," although it certainly is not that - the Moscow metro system transported me to the theater. A booklet sold with the program discusses elaborate costumes that are to be designed by Yury Kharikov, although the actors perform in their street clothes on an empty stage.

[…] here are a few things we can say with certainty.

This show runs over the course of three evenings, each segment lasting more than three hours. The word frag­ment “-toria” in the title is a reference to the Torah, the sacred Jewish book whose title, in Hebrew, means “teach­ing” or “law." The “golem" of the sec­ond half of the title refers to a figure in Jewish folklore, an artificially created being, often of mud, that is given hu­man form and endowed with the power of life. On the cover of the syllabus provided with the program, the performance is designated as an 'open process." However, while the statement I have made is true - it re­ally does say that on the title page - I have my doubts about how open all of this really is. Before long, one begins wondering how open is “open" and to what extent the use of this word is merely another way for Yukhananov to make us doubt everything we set or hear. Is “LaboraTORIA. The Golem” re­ally an open-ended, evolutionary pro­cess, or is it more structured than the director admits?

Weil, I’ll throw gasoline on the fire and say this: It’s both. If you think I’m copping out - you haven’t seen Yukhananov’s show.

The players in this tale are a the­ater troupe creating a production of Leivik’s “The Golem”. Some actors per­form the part of Judah Loew, the rabbi known historically as the Maharal, or play and begins wreaking havoc on the community. Other actors play the golem itself. But everyone is always playing a version of themselves, the actors who are rehearsing and per­forming the play. Rehearsals of “The Golem” slip into performances of its scenes or discussions of scenes that have been acted. The transformations from one state to another - rehearsal to performance or performance to dis­cussion - are never signaled in any formal way. Yukhananov’s actors, like a battalion of golems, are in a constant state of becoming without ever actu­ally being any one specific thing.

More than anything Yukhananov is engaged in exploring the nature of theater and performance. “The Golem” appears to be a pretext, an excuse to take on material whose topic is one of creating and becoming. The perfor­mance lurches and hurries along in long, digressive, semi-improvised dia­logues and monologues about Hegelian philosophy and Stanislavskian theater interspersed with raucous dances and songs such as one telling the story of an American pilot shot down by a Russian during the Vietnam War, or the Billie Holiday standard, “The Man I Love”.

Always at the center of this amorphous performance are three charac­ters - the director (Nikolai Karakash) and his two trusty translators (Yelena Lyubarskaya and Andrei Tsitsernaki).

The director is something of a tyrant, something of a seeker and actress begins doing exercises, the di­rector immediately follows suit: “If an actress works, I must too”, he explains. For every statement he makes, he asks twice as many questions challenging the conclusions he has drawn. He has a ready opinion about any topic that arises. “The era of perfect art is over”, he declares. “We now live in an era of face-makers”. The most famous direc­tors of the 20th century - Konstantin Stanislavsky, Bertolt Brecht and Gor­don Craig - all “raped” the texts they staged, he states. And to prove his point, he throws himself on one of his actresses and goes through the motions of raping her as he describes his impressions of having seen Lev Dodin’s production of “Uncle Vanya”. Perhaps most telling of all is the director's confession that the “spectator must be deprived of any expectations”.

Does that also mean that spectators will be deprived of the ability to understand what is happening? Each audience member will come to his or her own conclusion.

The translators not only render ev­ery line spoken into fluid, idiomatic English, they are the bane of the direc­tor's existence. He frequently chal­lenges their translations, claiming he was saying something else. On occa­sion they even get ahead of things and moments it is no longer clear what is the original and what is an interpreta­tion of it. Thanks to the translations - invariably offered by the two actors with a heavy dose of irony and a deep distrust of the director - the enormous amounts of theorizing and philoso­phizing are given a theatrical basis. In addition to their primary purpose, long treatises on the difference between im­provisation and spontaneity or the na­ture of fear and temptation also mas­querade as a strange dialogue between languages, each language pushing the topic in a slightly different direction. Lyubarskaya's laughing eyes and Tsitsernaki’s sense of jaded superiority im­part a lively vigor even to the driest theory.

Did all this have to run for 10 to 12 hours over three days? An awful lot of hairsplitting goes on throughout this show. One might say it drives its point home early then proceeds to drive the topic into the ground. Yukhananov, I suspect, couldn’t care less about that. His purpose was to create something and unleash it on the world to see what would happen.

What happens is this show, nothing more and nothing less. And what happens, to a large extent, is different each time it is per­formed. If your idea of theater is something neat, polished and well-defined, stay away from “LaboraTORIA. The Golem”. If you are accustomed to seeking revelations in the territory of chaos and excess, this show may have something to say to you.