Nazi Death Camps, A-Bomb Collide in Russian Drama: John Simon
Review by John Simon
July 23 (Bloomberg) -- The Maly Drama Theatre of St. Petersburg brings us -- courtesy of New York’s Lincoln Center Festival -- “Life and Fate,” an adaptation by its famed director Lev Dodin of Vasily Grossman’s novel of that grandiose title. “Maly” in Russian means “little,” but nothing about this 4-hour traversal is little, even if one might wish it were.
The stage of John Jay College’s smallish Gerald W. Lynch Theater is large enough to house a production that packs a hefty novel into a one-set event, with 27 speaking and 6 nonspeaking roles performed by 24 speaking and 5 mute actors.
The scene is, more or less simultaneously, the apartment of the distinguished Jewish physicist Viktor Shtrum and family, a room at the Moscow Institute of Nuclear Physics, the Russian gulag, a Nazi concentration camp, Russian army headquarters during the siege of Stalingrad, and a couple of other merely suggested locations.
Further thickening matters is the tricky time frame, as the play moves unexpectedly backward and forward, some of it set in the present, some remembered. Viktor’s mother, Anna, an ophthalmologist who perished in a Nazi-created ghetto, wrote her son a long farewell letter. The old lady, speaking that letter in a low monotone voice, weaves her way throughout, halting the action whenever she comes on, still monologizing during what is one of three or four possible endings (I lost count).
Mental calisthenics are necessary to follow the sundry plot threads, as follows:
Viktor has worked out in his mind the requirements for an atomic bomb, which Stalin needs to hold his own in the future Cold War. But Viktor, his wife Liuda and schoolgirl daughter Nadya, don’t know this and dread the fate that has befallen some of his assistants: Anti-Semitism is rife even at the Institute.
Liuda’s first marriage, to Abarchuk, produced a now fallen soldier son still haunting the proceedings. Liuda’s sister Genia, divorced from Krymov, is conducting an affair with young Colonel Novikov. Abarchuk and Krymov are in the same labor camp, where Genia feels she should follow, even as Liuda keeps bugging the authorities about Abarchuk. He is threatened at the camp by criminal fellow inmate Barchatov.
In the Nazi camp, prisoner Mostovskoy, an old Bolshevik, has a recurring political debate with camp commander Liss of the SS, which will shake up the Russian. Novikov, when not bedding the tormented Genia, flouts Stalin’s orders, delaying a tank attack by 10 minutes to spare some lives; denounced by Commissar Getmanov, he is carted off to some dark destiny.
We must decode a lot more, though plagued by surtitles that rush, lag, or fail to show up. The chief decor element is a diagonal, nearly stage-wide wire net, sometimes acting as an imprisoning fence, sometimes for interludes of volley ball, which is periodically played to suggest how sweet life could be.
The mostly good performances suffer from Dodin’s evident uninformedness about less being more, so we are clobbered with overexplicitness and profuse repetition. Voyeurs will savor the beauty of Elena Solomonova (Liuda) and Elizaveta Boyarskaya (Genia), both revealing, during sex scenes, much more than their faces.
I firmly believe in a law governing the dramatization of novels: If it is worth doing, it can’t be done; if it can be, it wasn’t worth it. I am still puzzling out which of the alternatives applies here. [link]
posted by: jrtelegraph