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Oakland Tribune, December 14, 2003


Shotgun Players rally troops for fascinating 'Meyerhold'



IN a way, Shotgun Players' ambitious, exciting "The Death of Meyerhold" is like a musical biography along the lines of, let's say, "Funny Girl" or the more recent "The Boy from Oz."

You take an intriguing figure from history -- in this case the Russian director Vsevolod Meyerhold -- and you dramatize the key moments in a momentous life. In between the boring scenes, you stir things up with exciting song-and-dance numbers.

Writer/director Mark Jackson's "Meyerhold" is not a musical, per se. There's plenty of lush Russian music on the sound system (Shostakovich, Knipper, Soloviyov-Sedoy), but instead of songs, Jackson incorporates Meyerhold's somewhat bizarre performance methodology.

Where Meyerhold's contemporary (and teacher) Stanislavski believed in psychological realism and method acting, Meyerhold created what he called "biomechanics."

This approach, which Meyerhold developed in the 1920s and '30s, focused much more on the physical and borrowed heavily from Japanese Kabuki and Italian commedia dell'arte. The system relies heavily on rhythm and exaggerated movement and asks actors to work from the outside in.

Seeing biomechanics on stage is not unlike watching dancers perform without music but with the addition of dialogue.

Meyerhold's new method was revolutionary, but not nearly so bloody as the revolution occurring in the streets of Russia in the first half of the 20th century.

As Jackson's play offers thrilling examples of biomechanics in action, he also unfolds Meyerhold's biography -- his clashes with Stanislavski, the formation of his various theater companies, his marriage to the actress Zinaida Raikh, his ultimate success and finally his arrest and execution by Stalin's henchmen.

Jackson, the founding artistic director of Art Street Theater, was pulled into the Shotgun fold by artistic director Patrick Dooley, who's also a member of the "Meyerhold" cast. As Dooley could probably tell you, he, along with his 11 fellow actors, was given extensive training in biomechanics to fully realize Jackson's vision and to accurately represent Meyerhold's lasting contribution to world theater.

As a director, Jackson is wildly talented. His dynamic use of the stage at Berkeley's Live Oak Theatre makes excellent use of Leonard Bechler's simple, solidly built platform set.

Action unfolds on multiple levels, and the use of red curtains lends just the right amount of color.

The cast features a number of Shotgun regulars, and their work under Jackson's guidance reveals new depths. Dave Maier, Reid Davis, Andy Alabran and Clive Worsley bring fiery passion and broad comedy to their multiple roles and do some of their best work yet for the company.

Richard Louis James as Stanislavski makes a strong impression, especially in his final scene with Meyerhold (Cassidy Brown) when the two men, who for so long have fought artistic battles, join together to fight the rising oppression of the Soviet government.

Brown's Meyerhold suffers a fate common to central characters in a dramatic biography that renders the subject one of the least colorful people on stage. The performance is admirable, but the character is ultimately unfocused.

The show is virtually stolen by Beth Wilmurt as the actress Maria Babanova.

Auditioning for Meyerhold's company, Babanova performs her own version of "Hamlet" in which she plays all the parts wordlessly until the very end, when she whispers, "The rest is silence." Wilmurt is graceful, precise and utterly compelling. She is, in short, magnificent.

As exciting as "The Death of Meyerhold" is, there are problems. Jackson has chosen to tell his story in an old-fashioned three-act play, which stretches the evening to three hours. That is at least 30 minutes too long.

After the first act, which is such an exciting swirl of movement and history that you barely notice 40 minutes have gone by, the play becomes increasingly conventional.

By Act 3, Jackson's writing has lost its way. In the play's final moments, one last burst of color, sound and motion reminds us how thrilling and theatrical "Meyerhold" can be.

Any old biography can resort to chatter. Jackson's play is too bold and involving to stand still for an abundance of talk. If this were a musical, we'd need more songs. In this case, we connect to Meyerhold most strongly when the actors are employing his methods and demonstrating his art, so we need more biomechanics.

Still, this Shotgun Players production is one of the company's most successful and fully realized ever. "The Death of Meyerhold" is not perfect, but its merits -- superb staging, strong performances, admirable ambition -- far outweigh its flaws.

This could mark an exciting new era for the 12-year-old Shotgun. Let the revolution begin.

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