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Revival of1920s Satirical Writer Lacks Punch

John Freedman, The Moscow Times,11March 2010, 11.03.2010

In one ofthe best scenes inLevitin's show, Stanislav Sukharev argues over the philosophical properties ofahat.

Yevgeny Lyulyukin / Wingwave.ru

There are writers who hide from their public for years, for decades and maybe even for centuries. Nikolai Erdman isone ofthem.

He was one ofthe most important playwrights and screenwriters ofthe 1920s, helping Soviet theater and cinema get ontheir feet. Hewrote plays for the great theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold and scripts for the fashionable film director Grigory Alexandrov. Hewas apoet, the author ofpopular comic sketches, circus routines and song lyrics.

However, Erdman was arrested in1933and exiled for writing anti-Soviet texts. Henever rose topublic prominence again.

He died inMoscow in1970, avirtual unknown. His famous 1925 play The Warrant had been staged only once inthe last 45 years— his masterwork, The Suicide, was first staged inSweden only months before his death. Most ofthe writing hedid for cinema was semi-anonymous, while the sketches and routines that were sopopular inthe 1920s naturally disappeared.

Today the world knows Erdman asthe author ofThe Warrant and The Suicide. Experts may know him asthe screenwriter for Alexandrov's Jolly Fellows and Volga-Volga, two ofthe most popular Russian musical comedies inhistory. But few know anything about the two orthree dozen other films made from his scripts.

All ofthis leads directly into Mikhail Levitin's „Who Wrote This Nonsense? atthe Hermitage Theater.

Levitin, aconnoisseur ofall things eccentric, put together arag-tag show ofsnippets and scraps drawn from Erdman's oeuvre. Woven into scenes drawn from sketches, fables and even Erdman's personal correspondence are several monologues from „The Suicide. Although the show runs over three hours, itmoves quickly because itisbroken down into about two dozen separate sections.

The result isashow that says much more about Levitin than about Erdman. Levitin's eclecticism, his love ofabsurdities, his flirtations with „lowly cabaret ormusic-hall aesthetics are all here inforce. What Isaw little ofwas Erdman.

Things begin onapromising note when two clown-like figures emerge tohaggle over the philosophical properties ofahat. These are Stanislav Sukharev and Viktor Nepomnik performing aninterlude that Erdman wrote for aproduction of„Lev Gurych Sinichkin atthe Vakhtangov Theater inthe 1920s. Ithas all ofthe paradox, twisted logic and lyricism that Erdman built into all ofhis works. The actors give itanaffectionate reading.

From there onout, however, the show's successes are more checkered.

Most suspect are the excerpts from The Suicide, with Yevgeny Kulakov performing the character ofthe supposedly suicidal Semyon Podsekalnikov. Funny, unsettling and tragic inthe original play, these scenes struggle tomake sense ascomic sketches presented completely out ofcontext.

The unevenness ofthe production isexemplified inits longest segment, aparodical piece called „Othello, or, The Stomach Incision, originally written for the Satire Theater inthe early 1930s. Aslong asthe scene clings toShakespeare's text, itisineffectual atbest. Only when the story isturned over toahapless doctor (Irina Bogdanova) trying toheal asick worker does Erdman's natural mix ofwacky comedy and lyricism come into focus.

Among the reasons for Erdman's arrest were several pungent, satirical fables written with his friend Vladimir Mass inthe early 1930s. They spoofed everything from food shortages and modern sexual mores tothe work habits ofJosef Stalin. These were sopopular atthe time that they went viral inMoscow, touse apithy, contemporary term.

Levitin works several ofthem into his show byhaving aquartet ofmen intuxes recite them inunison with agreat deal ofpomp and irony.

Scenes are often tied together bythe pianist Andrei Semyonov, who helps the actors remember their lines when they forget them and lends his tinkly tunes tosong and dance routines.

Designer Harry Hummel pulled alarge chunk ofseats out ofthe middle ofthe auditorium, allowing for performances totake place among the audience, and heerected acheap, amateur-looking platform and curtain inthe middle ofthe stage. The problem with imitation cheap isthat itisoften hard totell from the real thing. The setting often makes this show look like itwas thrown together without much thought.

If you have never heard ofNikolai Erdman, „Who Wrote This Nonsense? will likely not encourage you tolearn more.

„Who Wrote This Nonsense? (Kto Avtor Etogo Bezobrazia?) plays Sun., March 19 and 28 at7p.m. atthe Hermitage Theater, located at3Karetny Ryad. Metro Chekhovskaya. Tel. 650-2076, 650-6742. www.ermitazh.theatre.ru. Running time: 3hours, 10 minutes.

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Revival of1920s Satirical Writer Lacks Punch, John Freedman, The Moscow Times,11March 2010, 11.03.2010
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