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SF Bay Guardian, January 8, 2004


Soviet Drama
Restaging history with The Death of Meyerhold.

-- By Robert Avila

AS AN ARTISTIC visionary incited by turbulent times, Vsevolod Meyerhold literally created his own stage as a historical actor. Shotgun Players' production of Mark Jackson's Death of Meyerhold is an extravagant and multifaceted examination of the career of the revolutionary Russian theater director. And not least because Meyerhold was a revolutionary in the fullest sense; there's no escaping a contemporary resonance in the play's fraught mixture of art and political action.

The young Meyerhold (Cassidy Brown), an original actor-member of Konstantin Stanislavsky's Moscow Art Theater, soon outgrew the artistic and political limitations of the naturalistic style Stanislavsky (Richard Louis James) was developing. Meyerhold's consequent foray into a more abstract, stylized form of staging and performance took early inspiration from Chekhov (Reid David), as well as the political turmoil surrounding Russia's 1905 revolution, and strove for a theater that would provoke thought (not merely "reproduce life") and erase the line between the stage and the street. A partisan of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 and a pioneer of Soviet drama, Meyerhold had a fiercely independent mind that was, like many others', doomed under totalitarianism. Stalin had him executed and erased from history in 1940. His work and its significance were only slowly rehabilitated beginning in 1956, three years after Stalin's death.

In writer-director Jackson's ambitious and often surprising portrait, Meyerhold the director could be a bit of an autocrat himself (the play's title may even teasingly allude to his famous portrayal of the czar in Tolstoy's Death of Ivan the Terrible). His cruel exploitation of the great leading actress Maria Babanova (Beth Wilmurt) in favor of his second wife, Zinaida Raikh (Isabelle Ortega), which forms one strand of Jackson's narrative, suggests by its authoritarian indifference something of the unconscious parallels between Meyerhold's revolution and that of the Bolsheviks.

But then, "truth and reality are two different things," as Stanislavsky tells Meyerhold near the play's end. Their deeply ironic reunion in 1938 proves as much. Meyerhold's break with Stanislavsky three decades earlier was partly political in nature, rooted in a desire to "burn with the spirit of [his] time." Now, with the institutionalized revolution he served appropriating the arts as a means of social control, Meyerhold's very political sophistication, the irrepressible nature of his style, marks him for elimination. Stanislavsky's more apolitical commitment to theatrical realism, meanwhile, puts him comfortably in line with a regime that has mandated "socialist realism" as the cultural law of the land.

Stanislavsky's approach informs more than the political theme. Jackson, cofounder of San Francisco's experimental Art Street Theater, moves beyond melodrama and historical biography in tackling his larger-than-life subject, ingeniously putting Meyerhold's radical stage techniques into a stimulating conversation with competing styles and conventions. Watching the play, it's as if the ghosts of Stanislavsky and Meyerhold are battling for control of the stage: actors continually switch performance styles, slipping from realistic expression into the moving portraiture built on Meyerhold's Biomechanics, as naturalism gives way to something reminiscent of a film sequence by Sergei Eisenstein (a Meyerhold student, in fact). The choreography – frequently enveloped by the cinematic mix of Robert Ted Anderson's lighting and Jake Rodriguez's symphonic sound design – can be sublime.

Meanwhile Jackson, the director behind the directors, remains at once aloof and firmly in charge. (He cheekily makes the point early on by having an actor play him in the mock realism of a "pre-play" interview.) As styles bleed into, give rise to, and even comment on each other in scene after scene, the "historical record" plays out in the narrative (with the thematically appropriate aid of supertitles) while Meyerhold's genius, a sort of living biography of his art, is conveyed through a kaleidoscopic mise-en-scène that transforms the stage into a character in its own right.

This exciting display partly saves The Death of Meyerhold from the trap of so many historical dramas that find no way of relating the genius of their subject other than by telling you through expository dialogue that, hey, this man was a genius. (It also helps keep things rolling through three full acts.) At the same time the dialogue, often constructed around verbatim passages from historical sources, can still feel laden. When, by contrast, act two opens on a darkly comic scene between Meyerhold and two other prisoners in a White Army jail, the snappy original dialogue immediately feels fresher.

Historical detail constitutes the play's own stake in a kind of realism, and it's genuinely funny but also telling when the supertitles begin expressing boredom and laxity with the task of keeping the audience abreast of the chronology. The problem cuts both ways too: some of the more central figures necessarily come over as mere sketches and, as a result, remain one-sided. Ortega's Raikh probably comes closest to fully sharing the stage with Meyerhold. Meanwhile Brown, in the demanding title role, offers a stolid but sympathetic portrait, which, in its strong American inflection, once or twice brings to mind the pathos of a Citizen Kane.

Even with its lopsidedness, though, The Death of Meyerhold earns our attention for its consistent intelligence and flashes of brilliance.

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