At the end of
the show at the Gogol Center when the initial round of applause begins to fade,
actors carry a large screen onstage. After a moment, the familiar face of
Kirill Serebrennikov is projected onto the screen. One of Russia’s leading
theater and film directors makes funny faces and smiles. Unfortunately, he cannot
attend “Little Tragedies,” his latest premiere at Gogol Center, in person.
Serebrennikov spends the evening in his apartment, under house arrest — which
was just extended for another three months until mid-January.

The director was
able to do most of the preparatory work before his highly theatrical arrest in
St. Petersburg and all-night drive to Moscow for interrogation on charges many
deem “Kafkaesque.” The last rehearsals took place without Serebrennikov, but
“Little Tragedies,” based on four short dramas in verse penned by Russia’s
greatest poet, Alexander Pushkin, were ready for the stage.

“Little Tragedies” is not the
first time Serebrennikov has tried to tackle a Russian classic. Some of his
best productions have been based on such works as “A Common Story” by Ivan
Goncharov, “Dead Souls” by Nikolai Gogol and “Who Lives Well in Russia?”
by Nikolai Nekrasov. In “Little Tragedies” Serebrennikov stays close to the words
of the classic, but updates and sometimes revolutionizes the meaning.

Angels and
Train Station Waiting Rooms

The opening
scene is classic Serebrennikov: a waiting room, probably at a small town’s
train station full of the usual suspects: a saleswoman behind a dirty food
stall, a couple of women with huge checkered bags, a policeman eating instant
noodles, and a panhandler playing an accordion. Under the ceiling there’s a TV
broadcasting news about Putin, but it’s just a coincidence. It’s live TV and
the news could have been about Serebrennikov himself. While this is going on,
the audience is entering and taking their seats.

Meanwhile, “The
Prophet,” a famous poem by Pushkin, appears line by line on a screen on stage. When
the words “With his sharp sword he cleaved my breast, and plucked my quivering
heart out” appear on the screen, a seraph — a six-winged angel — appears and
does exactly that to one of the people in the waiting room (Filipp Avdeyev).
The encounter is shown in a horror movie style, with plenty of blood and gore.
Then the angel replaces the heart with coals and the screen shows the word
“burn,” which corresponds to the words of the poem “burn human hearts with words”
and becomes a common theme of the whole production.

That’s the
moment when the rapper Husky (Dmitry Kuznetsov) appears and starts rapping one
of the tracks from his latest album “Favorite Songs of Imaginary People”
(Lubimie pesni voobrazhaemikh lyudei). Husky’s appearances are in between the
“little tragedies.” One might say that Husky’s character on stage is meant to
represent today’s Pushkin. Sometimes he raps together with Avdeyev, another
incarnation of the Poet in this production.

Husky’s recent
rise to stardom with his low-fi, black-and-white videos and patter of a simple
guy who grew up in a “panelka” (panel house in Russian, as well as the name of
one of Husky’s hits) reflects Russians desire to listen to more meaningful
lyrics than the adapted Western tropes that mainstream local rappers like
Timati are known for.

Four Little
Tragedies

After “The
Prophet,” the “Little Tragedies” start, first with “Mozart and Salieri,”
Pushkin’s take on a well-known legend that the genius Mozart was poisoned by
his mediocre colleague. They are played, respectively, by Filipp Avdeyev and
Nikita Kukushkin, arguably the best actors raised by Serebrennikov and his
“Seventh Studio,” the company currently under criminal investigation. Then
comes “The Miserly Knight,” with one of the most memorable performances of the
show by Alexei Agranovich as the Baron. In Serebrenninov’s version, the Baron hoards
not gold but books — a sign of the times.

This is
followed by “The Stone Guest,” the familiar legend of Don Juan, spelled by
Pushkin as Don Guan. The lead is played by Semyon Shteinberg. It is generally
believed that Pushkin’s retelling of Don Juan’s story is at least partially
based on the poet’s own wild youth. Finally, “A Feast in Time of Plague”
gathers all the “old guard” of the Gogol Center (before Serebrennikov came to
the theater), with the one exception of the “younger” Agranovich, who plays the
Chairman.

Without
revealing all the brilliant twists Serebrennikov put in “Little Tragedies,” it’s
not a spoiler to mention that the Baron’s son Alber takes part in motorcycle races
instead of jousting tournaments, Don Guan reminisces about his trysts with a
tape recorder, and the guests at “A Feast in Time of Plague” get together at
the retirement home for actors.

Serebrennikov
sprinkled “Little Tragedies” with cameos of other poems by Alexander Pushkin
with sly references to current events. For example, there are quotes from the
poem “October 19,” which coincidentally was the date of another of Serebrennikov’s
appearances in court, where his lawyers tried to repeal the house arrest to no
avail.

But probably
the most moving and memorable poetic cameo was “Presentiment” at the very end
of the production. Highlighted on the closing curtain, the lines are addressed to
an angel, but read as a message to Serebrennikov himself:

“But divining
separation –

That
appalling, fateful trice –

I squeeze your
hand with such passion

As if this
time were the last.”

Check the
site of the Gogol Center for January productions.