It is a disorienting experience to be transported by your senses to a different world: from the hot sun against your face to the sight of relentless snow, from sneakers to ball gowns, from English prose to Russian poetry. Only a week after the Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg’s presentation of The Pygmalion Effect at the New York City Center, the Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre of Russia took the same stage for a four-day run of Lermontov’s Masquerade.
Set in St. Petersburg in the 1830s, Masquerade tips between tragedy, comedy, and absurdity. The play follows the inner life of its main character, Eugene Arbenin, and tells a story of love, guilt, jealousy, and passion. Some have called it the Russian Othello. Lermontov’s four-act play is written entirely in verse and, even in New York City, it preserved in its original textual form and language with English subtitles running on screens above the stage.
The Vakhtangov Theatre’s history with the play goes back to 1941 when Masquerade first entered the theater’s repertoire. Unfortunately, the play’s run was cut short. War took over the city’s life. While the original production is not our subject here today, one thing is important to note. In 1941, composer Aram Khachaturian was asked to create a waltz that would accompany Lermontov’s work on the Vakhtangov stage. The music he created was powerful: eerie, beautiful, and combined tragedy and a propelling hope. As it circles through the story, it became knit into the DNA of the play. When, in 2010, Rimas Tuminas brought Masquerade back into the company’s repertoire, he included this same music in a central role.
There are two aspects of Vaktangov’s Masquerade that make the production distinct and both of them have to do with the sensory realm. First is the above-mentioned music. Khachaturian’s waltz, that circular dance, is haunting and magical. It brings a kind of mysticism to the stage. And second, but not less important, is the play’s striking visual presentation. The set is sparse. Two marble pedestals with a female sculpture mounted on one, a crypt, once replaced by a piano, and intricate historic costumes are all placed against a black backdrop and under winter’s snowfall.
Tuminas brings density to the play by building on Lermontov’s ideas. There are elements of absurdity and grotesque in the emotional, sometimes hysterical tone of the production: the unending, suffocating snow, the snowball, growing with each new scene and rolling over Arbenin at the end of the play. There is the gambler who dies in the first act and, as much as the characters attempt to get rid of his corpse, continues to resurface, as if there is something in him that cannot be covered up even in death. There are also some comical scenes, like the appearance of a man in a contemporary hockey uniform in the second act or an episode with Prince Zvezdich, arguing with a servant, who speaks with a Chinese accent, parodying a bargaining scene at a market. And let us not forget that through all this we have Khachaturian’s waltz as our background.
These Tuminas interludes and the visual compositions are what audience members are left thinking about at the end of the play. In the director’s sensory universe, the sounds of Lermontov’s prose bends to his vision. Yes, it is still recognizably Lermontov’s work, but it is undoubtedly flavored and marked by Tuminas’ vision. His Masquerade has taken on a different mission, one that the actors—Evgeny Knyazev, Olega Nemogay, Leonid Bichevin, Lidia Velezheva—embrace with a deep understanding. After almost a decade of living with their director’s interpretation, there is an undeniable synergy on stage. And while the production might be dense, you walk away knowing there is something in it for you. The actors have convinced you—certainly, there is meaning and story. But like a music box, Tuminas’ Masquerade dazzles you with its beauty in hopes that you open it up again, to examine the magic of the composition.