A poem by Osip Mandelshtam laments, “Within the walls of the Acropolis I was consumed / By sorrow for the Russian name and Russian beauty.” You, however, needed to go no farther than the inhospitable premises of Fordham’s Pope Auditorium to catch Moscow’s Vaktanghov Theater butchering Aleksandr Ostrov-sky’s delightful Innocent as Charged, and be consumed by sorrow for Russia’s good name, and shame for its current theater.
Ostrovsky (1823-86) was, with the possible exception of Gogol, Russia’s premier playwright between Pushkin and Chekhov. As the author of 52 plays, and ending up as manager of the Moscow Imperial Theaters, he knew the life of the theater, both onstage and off, intimately. Innocent as Charged (1884) is part melodrama, part farce, part comédie larmoyante (tearful comedy à la Musset). In a program note, Boris Sretensky observes, “Many directors of the Soviet era cheapened Ostrovsky by treating him naturalistically.” This could not have been worse than Pyotr Fomenko’s current treatment of him as vulgar camp.
The worst offenders were Lyudmila Maksakova and Viktor Zozulin; best were Yulia Borisova and Yuri Yakovlyev among the elders, Yelena Sotnikova and Nonna Grishayeva among the young. Incidentally, some performers were decades older than their parts called for, which close arena seating indiscreetly revealed, add-ing embarrassment. The sets were shoddy, the costumes gaudy and sometimes absurd, and the music inappropriate. Miss Maksakova’s anachronistic croaking of “Autumn Leaves” while hop-skipping around (along with flinging herself about, her trademark) and senilely flirting with the audience in the round was especially excruciating. So, too, was the bursting into snatches – or whole stretches – of uncalled-for song, and twice even into an unhinged cancan line. The Russian woman translating over the headphones contributed additional farce, as when a dying baby was “wizzing” and eyes filled with “tares.”