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SF Weekly, 12-24-03

An Irreverent Death
Meyerhold may be the best home-grown play since Angels in America



If Konstantin Stanislavsky is the grandfather of modern acting, Vsevolod Meyerhold is his upstart son -- a sort of Jung to the older man's Freud: Meyerhold created a stylized alternative to the Stanislavsky Method, but died in disgrace (by firing squad) under Stalin. His life has the sweep and drama of Doctor Zhivago, but Mark Jackson and the Shotgun Players have created an irreverent version of it that rebels, like Meyerhold himself, against sweep and drama. The fact that it works so well is the happiest piece of news I've had to report in this column all year. The Death of Meyerhold does what Tony Kushner only wishes he could do: It mixes history and politics in a witty, epic-length script, and sets them dancing across the stage.

Meyerhold lived from 1874 to 1940, from the czarist empire well into the Soviet one. He got his start as an actor at Stanislavsky's Moscow Art Theater, where Chekhov debuted his best plays (like The Seagull, in 1898; Meyerhold played Treplev). He broke with Stanislavsky to forge a movement system called "biomechanics," a mixture of dance, commedia, kabuki, and circus techniques used to oppose his teacher's introspective realism. Stanislavsky's Method asked actors to look inward for the emotions to guide a role; Meyerhold asked actors to start from the outside, with movement and gesture. The result was a rhythmic musical style that complemented Stanislavsky's and belonged to a golden age in Russian theater.

Jackson has used biomechanics for years in stylized plays he has written and directed for the local Art Street Theatre. Those plays -- R&J; Io, Princess of Argos! -- tend to be dense comic remakes of Greek tragedy or Shakespeare. Most of them last about an hour, so Meyerhold, which lasts three, is either a trio of normal Art Street shows or Jackson's first attempt at an epic-length play. In either case, it's a coup.

The show starts with an interview between the Shotgun Players' artistic director, Patrick Dooley, and "Mark Jackson" (really an actor, Benjamin Privitt, playing him), who explains a few points about Meyerhold. Then it moves to a Seagull rehearsal in 1898. A consumptive Chekhov coughs and gives advice; a young Meyerhold wrangles with Stanislavsky's overly literal directing. The theory of biomechanics that "Mark Jackson" has just explained stays in the background. You notice the stark gestures and ominous repetitions (of a pistol shot, of somebody coughing) only when Jackson wants you to. Otherwise the show resembles a tightly directed comedy.

Example: An actress named Maria Babanova impresses Meyerhold at an audition by performing a minute-long mime of Hamlet that makes witty reference to both biomechanics and old Art Street shows but also stands alone as a hilarious tour de force. Later, a group of actors runs through "exercises" while Meyerhold talks to a critic named Lunacharsky. The conversation is realistic, even Stanislavskian. Meyerhold and Lunacharsky discuss the revolutionary future of acting, while in the background the silent ensemble strikes triumphant-worker poses like figures from a Communist propaganda poster.

The whole play is just as ambiguous and layered. Jackson deals nimbly with Meyerhold's contradictions. The Russian director was not just a victim of a Stalinist purge, but also a lifelong admirer of Stalin. "We need tendentious plays," he wrote once, insipidly, "plays with one aim only: to serve the cause of the Revolution." He ran his own companies like a tyrant, screaming at actors and giving lead roles to his wife, who couldn't act. Yet his productions in the '20s and '30s made him a legend even outside Russia. One skillful scene here shows a clot of American directors and playwrights talking and drinking cocktails in New York. Harold Clurman has just seen an exciting Meyerhold production in Moscow. He chats with Clifford Odets, Elia Kazan, and Stella Adler -- all disciples of Stanislavsky -- about how rotten conditions are in the United States, and how marvelous it is that Russia supports its theaters. The year is 1934 or so, deep in the Depression. They're having a noisy time over drinks, while the Russians, juxtaposed stage left, wait in a bread line.

The actors mix Stanislavskian realism with Meyerholdian caricature. Cassidy Brown is sensitive, flowing, and charismatic as Meyerhold. Art Street co-founder Beth Wilmurt is masterfully exaggerated and physically crisp as Babanova. Clive Worsley plays an appealingly cool Vladimir Mayakovsky, the futurist playwright and poet who helps Meyerhold with his new theater but later (with no motivation, I'm afraid, in Jackson's script) shoots himself in the head. Richard Louis James does terrific work as both Stanislavsky and the brittle old critic Lunacharsky. Reid Davis is somehow perfect as Chekhov. And Isabelle Ortega plays a beautifully delicate young Zinaida Raikh, Meyerhold's wife. In her funniest scene she rushes out for a loud ovation and faces a sudden cartoonish silence, broken by cricket song.

The play does drag in places. A handful of actors seem dull, and all of them may have too much to say: For a director so interested in movement, Jackson's an awfully verbal guy. Still, director and cast -- along with sound designer Jake Rodriguez -- keep Meyerhold moving like a brisk, stirring piece of music, absurd on the surface but pulled by currents of grief.

Meyerhold is the most ambitious and powerful show to originate in the Bay Area since 1997, when I started writing for this paper. I'll even venture that it's the best home-grown play since Angels in America. Unlike that overrated "gay fantasia on national themes," though, Meyerhold makes a cool, intelligent discipline of not taking itself too seriously, and therefore avoids the usual maudlin swoon that directors of epics go in for, no matter what their politics. That swoon is the worst kind of bourgeois habit -- someone please notify Tony Kushner -- but Vsevolod Meyerhold, after all these years, is giving aid to a new resistance.

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