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Berkeley Daily Planet, 12-19-2003

Shotgun Players Go All Out for ‘Meyerhold’

-- By BETSY M. HUNTON Special to the Planet

First off, you could start a pretty good argument about the title of the Shotgun Players’ new production—and brand new it is—The Death of Meyerhold.

It’s a great title all right, short and dramatic and all that, and the play certainly does get around to that issue in the very end, but, aside from seeming a bit gloomy, it’s just not what the play is really about. You’ve got three acts in which only the last one gets to anything about killing the poor guy—and, after all, he was about 66 by then.

It would be more accurate to call it something like Meyerhold and the Modern Theater or Early 20th Century Theater in Russia, or best of all: Meyerhold, Modern Theater and the Rise of the Soviet Union. Granted, these sound more like thesis titles than they do an evening’s entertainment; however, there’s no question but that they may strike you as a lot more interesting after you see the play than they do right now.

This play, this production, is an act of love—love for the theater, love for its history, love for its potential. You could almost view it as a duet warbled between Mark Jackson, who both wrote and directed the play, and the Shotgun Players Company, which has unhesitatingly poured into Meyerhold double the money it has ever invested in a previous production.

Patrick Dooley, founder and artistic director of the company’s productions (and an actor in this one) and who has carefully nursed the company from its vagabond beginnings 12 years ago, made a most astonishing statement. He said that he “didn’t care about the risk” the company is taking. He “just wants people to see the play.” He figures that “we’ll make it up somehow.”

That’s love.

(You might want to check the schedule for Thursday’s $10 performances).

So who is this Meyerhold? Probably most theatergoers have at least heard about Stanislavsky, the Russian who laid the foundation for what we consider modern acting. Meyerhold is a different matter. But he was Stanislavsky’s contemporary, and something of a rival. Meyerhold was his student who broke away and developed his own distinctive philosophy and style of acting.
In the early part of the twentieth century, Meyerhold became equally as important and as influential as Stanislavsky in the Russian theater but had less opportunity to influence the West. An early Bolshevik, Meyerhold’s career flourished into Stalin’s era, until he challenged Stalin’s ideas about what theater should be. For reasons that this play does not elaborate, Meyerhold was arrested and murdered by the Soviets in 1940.

A successful effort was then made to wipe out all traces of his life and work. His wife was immediately killed, and, within a week, his apartment had a new tenant. It was not until “The Wall” went down in East Germany in 1960 that Meyerhold’s very existence, as much as his work and extraordinary ideas, were reintroduced into the theater world.

It’s still new stuff—rather like finding an untouched diamond mine. So the excitement with which the playwright, the artistic director, and the actors have greeted this play is certainly understandable.

While the theater community’s fascination with the work is almost guaranteed, there remains the question of the play’s relevance for a more general audience. For that there is the background creation of the world of the Soviet Union (it can be startling to realize how much of that horror has receded from memory). It would have been helpful to have these themes fleshed out, particularly since Meyerhold’s murder is left unexplained—as it was in real life, of course. Here it seems almost perfunctory.

Among them, the 12 talented actors who comprise the cast successfully create some 40 characters. Even Cassidy Brown, who does a fine job as Meyerhold—obviously a lengthy part—has one other small role. The acting thought the production is fascinating: quite stylized.

According to Patrick Dooley, there are only a few places in the play where Meyerhold’s acting methods are actually used.
The material, by the way, contains what must be the most extraordinary number of famous characters from the 30s artistic scene that have ever been collected in one evening’s performance. One entire scene is devoted to the Group Theatre in New York—Lee Strasberg, Clifford Odets, Stella Adler, Elia Kazan and on and on—who add a sense of universality to a text which has been saturated with such names as Chekov and Shostakovich and their ilk.

The net result of portraying the brutality of the Soviet regime largely as a background to artistic issues is interesting: This play provides a peephole in which the audience can get a glimpse of what it must be like to try to continue a private life with its own concerns in a world ruled by authoritarians.

May we never get closer to that knowledge.

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