From Russia With Loaves

Dysfunctional family: the cast of Brothers and Sisters.Photo: Stephanie Berger

With its unfailing nose for the unnecessary, the Lincoln Center Festival has brought us the St. Petersburg Maly Theater’s production of Brothers and Sisters, a two-part, six-hour adaptation of a novelistic trilogy by Fyodor Abramov, executed by Sergey Bekhterev, Arkadiy Katsman, and Lev Dodin, the Maly’s and the show’s director. It was presented with uncredited supertitles that sometimes went by too rapidly, sometimes lingered too long, but neither way convinced us that the work, three hours of which I endured, merited our attention.

Novels generally adapt poorly to the stage; trilogies, I daresay, thrice more so. This is the story of a Russian village during and after World War II, whose men are – those that haven’t perished – slow in getting back to their love- and food-starved women. The hero is Mikhail, a boy too young for the war, who, at 17, finds himself the head of the Pryaslin family: widowed mother, two sisters, two little brothers. The chairman of the village kolkhoz, Anfisa, is not eager for her husband’s return; she is waiting for another man she’s met. She has done her best for the village, but incurs ingratitude from the villagers, a perfect, predictable cross section of rubleless rubes, including the indispensable village idiot. There is also the merry and sexy widow, the witty Varvara, a loose cannon ogled by the men and frowned on by the women.

There is hunger in the village, which all hope will end with the peace. Stalin’s political heirs ensure that it doesn’t. There are political struggles within the kolkhoz leadership. Mikhail’s friend Yegorsha leaves for the city, for tractor-driver school. Mikhail and the older Varvara have a much-condemned affair until, while he is gathering wood in the forest, she runs off to the city with Anfisa’s cast-off husband. There is an occasional feast at which everyone gets drunk. More often there is penury and hunger. The slicing-up and dividing of a loaf of bread becomes a solemn ritual – an effective scene once, unfortunately reprised in a later dream sequence.

Hunger everywhere. I myself got hungry, though not for food. For something really original to happen. For the language to rise higher than the supertitles into imagination, poetry. For the mise-en-scène to show genuine invention. The play and production are 15 years old, but from the design, direction, and acting, it might as well be 150. The set is a modest wall of logs which is creakily lowered and raised. There are also two horizontal poles – a gate – spinning together from opposite sides to form a barrier across the forestage. This must have happened some 50 or 60 times during the play, and after roughly the thirtieth became as unexciting as the rest of the goings-on. The rather crude lighting did us one service: It sometimes made reading the supertitles harder, and spared us a few platitudes like “I’d rather die than live dishonored.”

The staging was either hysterical, with actors running all over the auditorium, or nobly statuesque, with each of the 40-odd performers striking overlong poses. One mute eating scene went on forever, to underline the importance of food, until even said village idiot, were he in the audience, would get it. There was much singing and dancing to accordion accompaniment, pleasant until taken over by an overloud PA system.

The acting was mostly old-school, solid as those logs, but unsubtle, more ludicrous than ludic. The shining exception was the Varvara of Natalya Fomenko: a vital, sensual actress, handsome and well-spoken, with allure and temperament enough for two, though not for 36. Good, too, in a more conventional way, was Sergey Vlasov’s sassy Yegorsha.

It is a pity that we were treated to this ossified marathon when the new Russian drama has surely finer practitioners. I have read with great interest about the new woman dramatists Lyudmila Petrushinskaya, Viktoria Takarova, Lyudmila Ulitskaya, and Nina Sadur. Why not one of their works rather than Abramov’s tiresome troika? Perhaps it was assumed that nothing is so universal as bad taste.

From Russia With Loaves