Last night my friend Lauren and I went to an experimental Russian theater production. We knew exactly three facts about the play going in:
- It would be a live theater performance
- It would be lit solely by candles
- It would be entirely in Russian
We were told to meet at a movie theater near the Горьковская metro at 7 pm, which was confusing from the outset as it seemed to contradict fact #1.
We met up with a Russian student volunteer from our program, who seemed just as confused by the whole of it as we were. We loitered awkwardly outside the movie theater until we were approached by a babushka who had our tickets. We handed over 1000 rubles each (about 15 US dollars), which she tucked into the pocket of her coat.
She handed us programs for the one-man show, a Dostoevsky play entitled Сон смешного человека (“The Dream of a Ridiculous Man”). 15 minutes later, at 7:10pm, those of us with tickets (for a 7pm show) were still hanging out near the movie theater. The babushka in charge had mysteriously vanished.
But never fear! At approximately 7:13 she reemerged, and directed us all to follow her down the street. Our pack of fourteen – traipsing behind our fearless leader – walked about ten minutes to a residential neighborhood. We stopped at one point at the house of Evgeny Schwartz, the screenwriter of a Soviet adaptation of “Cinderella.” One of our party was extremely excited about this, and insisted on having his photo taken with the building.
We continued on our way, and eventually stopped outside of an apartment complex, where we were buzzed in. The Schwartz fanboy held the gate open for us as we entered.
We paused in the courtyard, and the babushka began speaking rapidly. Our Russian friend translated under her breath (“She’s introducing the actor, Evgeny Baranov, an Honored Artist of the Russian Federation….now she’s talking about the building…”). The babushka gestured upwards at the apartments behind us. (“We’re going up there.”)
“Up there” turned out to be up five flights of stairs. We were a sweaty and out of breath group when we reached to top. The babushka was already there, having taken the elevator. There was palpable anticipation in the air. Everyone fell silent as the door to the apartment was opened.
As promised, it was candlelit. Like most apartments I’ve been in here, it was also quite small. We were met at the door by a woman I assumed to be the usher, who took our coats and gestured us inside. We entered a space about the size of a Vil A living room (that’s a *small* living room, for non-GU folk). We took our seats, a collection of sofas/ottomans/dining room chairs placed along the walls in a horseshoe. Hoping to keep a low profile, Lauren and I snagged two seats in the corner by the wood stove.
What followed was truly one of the most fascinating and most unexpected experiences of my young life. The usher – who turned out to be part-usher/part-actress – came into the candlelit room singing a very creepy ditty about what she was doing (“I’m lighting the candles…what am I doing…I don’t know…”). She then extinguished all of the candles and left the room, locking us in the darkness. It was quiet for a full thirty seconds.
And then a man burst out of the unassuming chest set against the wall across from us. He was holding a lit candle and seemed understandably out of breath. One of my primary takeaways from this theater experience was that any fire marshal in the United States would have vetoed eighty percent of the staging.
It was a long play, and thus to summarize, here are some notable things that happened:
- At one point, the main character writes a suicide note on comically large paper. (“He won’t light that on fire,” I think. “It’s too large!”) Boy oh boy was I wrong. Evgeny proceeded to light the entire paper on fire in a room that – I was suddenly painfully aware – was severely lacking in fire alarms. He then walked directly towards Lauren and I in order to deposit said paper into the wood stove. Let it be known that he almost missed and we were nearly set on fire.
- At another point, he deposited a lit candle atop the aforementioned chest and then shoved it across the room. The candle teetered very dramatically but miraculously did not fall over.
- Towards the end of the play, after the main character has had a revelation, he goes around the room and shakes each audience member’s hand. In Russian, he says to each person: “Love everyone, as well as you love yourself, and then you will know the truth.”
- The play ends with Evgeny leaving us again locked in the dark, except moments later he appears unexpectedly from inside a mirror hung on the wall in the corner. Truly a memorable image. Then the usher comes in, sings her creepy song, and relights the candles.
- At the end, as we were all applauding, the babushka stood up and Evgeny bowed to her appreciatively. Turned out she was the director! Truly the most fascinating character of all.
And then it was over. We left with the sort of thrilled confusion that generally follows very notable life experiences; the formation of a memory that is sure to last a very long time…and remain as baffling as ever.