Award-winning director Sergei Zhenovach puts on a new production of «The Gamblers,» Nikolai Gogol’s tale of cardsharps in a provincial town.
The buzz around Sergei Zhenovach being involved in four of the eight Golden Mask awards handed out in the field of drama two weeks ago has not died down yet. Three of those four went to «A Family in Decline,» the show that less than two years ago inaugurated Zhenovach’s new theater, the Studio of Theatrical Art. Zhenovach was named best director for his work on «Family,» which was tabbed best small-scale show. For good measure, Maria Shashlova was given a special jury prize for her performance in the play’s lead.
It certainly made an auspicious time for Zhenovach to unveil his latest production, Nikolai Gogol’s «The Gamblers.» What do you do when you have walked away with half the hardware at a national awards ceremony? You get back down to business.
Even though the Studio of Theatrical Art is still in its infancy, it is already possible to speak of a style that characterizes it. This isn’t surprising. The vast majority of its actors studied together at the Russian Academy of Theater Arts under Zhenovach.
The new theater’s defining features are its sincerity, its human appeal and what comes across as a gentle, reassuring sense of humor. Its shows reach out to audiences in a direct, personal way. Indeed, the actors often peer into the auditorium and select a spectator to whom they direct an entire monologue. A tip of the head or a wink of the eye confirms it — the actors are seeking to establish one-on-one communication with the members of the audience. They usually succeed.
There is something quietly revolutionary in this approach. This is not theater that threatens, challenges, titillates, mocks, assaults or badgers. Rather, it seeks dialogue, contact and understanding. In the context of the world around it, this seems quite a novel idea.
There is no getting around this, however: At times, the style at the Studio of Theatrical Art can be borderline soporific. Too much of a good thing is often a liability, and in a theatrical setting an overabundance of goodwill, sincerity and gentility is as likely to backfire as it is to have a positive effect. Plenty of moments in «A Family in Decline» and «The Gamblers» bear witness to this.
Where both shows excel is in characterization. Zhenovach’s young actors are distinctive in behavior and appearance. They exude an aura of intelligence and sensitivity, and they all have a flair for wit.
«The Gamblers» is an entire play built on the twists and turns of wit by one of Russia’s funniest writers. A man arrives in a provincial town looking to fleece some local cardsharps. He knows that moment when even the most experienced gambler gets caught up in the heat of the moment and loses his ability to think straight. What he doesn’t realize is that others may command that knowledge, too.
As performed by Andrei Shibarshin, the traveling gambler Ikharev is fastidious in his habits and immaculate in his dress. He is well-spoken and courteous in his treatment of others. Gambling is more than his business; it is his way of life. He asks the local tavern keeper (Maxim Lyutikov) if anyone plays cards in this neck of the woods and pays him discreetly, though with the proper dignity, for the information the man provides. Everything here is comme il faut. Ikharev in another time and place might have been an oilman, a real estate broker or — who knows? — a pop music producer.
Shvokhnev (Alexander Oblasov), Krugel (Grigory Sluzhitel) and Stepan Ivanovich (Alexei Vertkov) are the gentlemen Ikharev is fated to meet. Even before Ikharev learns about them, they have their eyes on him. Might he be someone they could pull a fast one on? No less than Ikharev, this trio exudes class and cool. Were they Americans, you could imagine them as graduates from Harvard or, at worst, from Yale. Their British counterparts would most likely be from Oxford. They’ve gone out in the world to make their fame and fortune. It hardly seems worth noting that they’ll do it by cheating and thieving.
For all of them, cheating at cards is a ritual as respectable as any other. There is a way you do it and if you do it as it should be done, there is nothing shameful about it. No offense intended. Whether or not offense is taken depends on whether you get the long or the short end of the stick.
Ikharev never doubts things are looking good when the trio he planned to swindle asks him to join their side. They suggest a con game directed at an elderly man named Glov (Sergei Kachanov) who happens to have 200,000 disposable rubles at hand. Things get murky when Glov’s place is taken by his son (Sergei Pirnyak) and he is followed in by Zamukhryshkin (Sergei Abroskin), a simpleton who may or may not be a bursar who can provide access to Glov’s money. Suddenly, it is entirely uncertain who is defrauding whom.
Zhenovach keeps the show running at a steady pace, as if it were a well-oiled business deal. He completely rejected the usual reading of these characters as bumpkins, sleazes and thugs. The four cardsharps resemble members of an elite club and would almost be interchangeable were it not that each exhibits his own distinguishing feature. Kugel is adamant about being accepted as a Russian even though he is of German descent; Stepan Ivanovich is not averse to taking control of events through his talent for finely veiled arrogance; Ikharev is a man for whom the rules of the game are unassailable. All are ironic down to the follicles of their hair. «I’m a nobleman,» declares the boy passing as Glov’s son. «It was fate that made me a crook.»
Designer Alexander Borovsky reinforced the sensation of sophistication and symmetry that predominates on stage. Nine tables covered in green felt are situated in a neat square in a room bordered by nine heavy wooden columns. A bust of Gogol stands in a corner alcove lending an air of refinement or, as it happens when the truth of the swindle comes out, humor.
Abrupt lighting changes and localized spots are employed by lighting designer Damir Ismagilov to impart a sense of movement to the primarily static performance. The actors often take up positions at different tables and fire their text back and forth at one another in clipped, clear voices.
Fans of the Studio of Theatrical Art will undoubtedly see everything they love about the theater in «The Gamblers.» Skeptically minded spectators might counter that in this production Gogol’s sharp edges are filed down a bit too smoothly. One thing is certain, however: Zhenovach continues to build a troupe and a theater that are unlike any other in Moscow.вся пресса