U.S. Theater Takes a New Look at Russian History

Culture Watch


Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News.

It seems that everywhere you turn in American culture this winter, there are the Russians of the past, all the varying Cossacks, czars and revolutionaries of bygone centuries.  They are everywhere, history’s ghosts.

It started last spring at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York with a production of Diary of a Madman, the story of a disgruntled government clerk (played brilliantly by Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush) working in St. Petersburg in the middle of the nineteenth century.

The flood of Russian theater in America continued with the premier of several of Anton Chekhov’s gems.  In October, the Yale Repertory Theater, in New Haven, Connecticut, staged a new production of Three Sisters and the Classic Stage Company in New York is staging The Cherry Orchard next week as part of its Chekhov Initiative, a full-scale stage assault on the works of the late nineteenth century Russian playwright who made his money as a physician.  The Cherry Orchard will star John Torturro and Diane Wiest.  The Stratford Shakespeare Festival, in Ontario, Canada, staged a series of Chekhov plays over the summer months.  The SoHo Repertory Company will stage a new production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya this season, too.

There is superb play about Russia in the 1950s running at Baruch College, Iron Curtain.  It is an hilarious look at the propaganda plays the Russian government produced in that era and the two Americans writers the KGB kidnapped to help spice them up.  It has every Cold War Russian stereotype in it, from Red spies to Nikita Khrushchev pounding at a board with his shoe.        

Across town in New York in January, the New Group is taking Russian theater forward 150 years with its production of Russian Transport, the story of a Russian couple living in the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn, New York today.  They have been assimilated into American society and are trembling about the upcoming visit of a very traditionalist uncle from Russia.

Coming to Los Angeles and New York soon, following a successful run in Paris, is a new play, In Paris, starring former Russian ballet star Mikhail Baryshnikov.  In Paris is the story of a retired Russian general who meets a gorgeous young waitress in a Moscow café.  It is based on a short story by Ivan Bunin, Russia’s first winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Also coming to New York, with a lot of interest, is the musical Zhivago, based on the Boris Pasternak novel and beloved film starring Omar Sharif and Julie Christie.  The musical opened in Sydney, Australia earlier in 2011 and its producers are looking for a theater in America in which to stage it in the spring or summer of 2012.

There have been two festivals devoted to Russian film and theater.  The Breaking String Theater, of Austin, Texas, staged a play festival last winter.  Last spring and summer, the "Russian Resurrection Film Festival" was held in Australia.

This year, the John F. Kennedy Center, in Washington, D.C., will play host to two of Russia’s premier ballet companies, the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky.  The Metropolitan Opera is jumping into the cultural Russian revolution with a production of Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina in the spring.

The movies will celebrate Russian history, too.  Yet another production of Anna Karenina, based on Leo Tolstoy’s nineteenth-century novel, starring Jude Law and Keira Knightley, will open next fall.

The Russians have even invaded American reality TV with a "Housewives" type show, Russian Dolls, that chronicles the lives of several Russian women living in New York.

News from Russia or about Russia is so sought after in the entertainment world that the recent departure of two of the Bolshoi Ballet’s top dancers – Natalia Osipova and Van Vasiliev – to the Mikhaeilovsky Ballet in St. Petersburg, brought about screaming headlines and lengthy stories all over the U.S.

But why all this attention to Russian history on the American stage?

And why so much Chekhov?

Chekhov, who chronicled Russian life in the middle of the nineteenth century, is the most famous Russian playwright. “Ask anybody to name a nineteenth century writer from any country and right away they say Anton Chekhov.  If any theater director wants to stage a nineteenth-century play, he or she will pick a Chekhov,” said Jonathan Bank, artistic director of New York’s Mint Theater and a longtime theater executive.

There has always been deep interest in all things Russian since the Cold War started in 1945 – what was going on behind the Iron Curtain? What was being written and smuggled out?  What novels?  Poems?  Plays?  What artistic titans were sneaking out to the West, such as dancer Baryshnikov?  Who would be the next big Russian hockey star to jump to the NHL?  What banned books and writers were getting into bookstores in the West, such as Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago?

This is true even now.  There is an uproar over a new play in Moscow that is very critical of Vladimir Putin and challenges his announced run for President (again) of Russia.  How could the government let this critical play debut?  Isn’t this Russia, the land of the iron fisted public officials? What is going on?

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 permitted everybody to look in on the Russian film, television and theater industries.  Russian orchestras, ballet and theater companies started to tour throughout the U.S.  Some vaunted Russians artistic institutions were, we discovered, terrific, such as the Bolshoi and Kirov ballets. Others, such as the Moscow Circus, were not.

The Russian mafia gained a stronghold in the U.S. and now gets enormous press attention every day of the week (one group of viewers voted a Sopranos episode about the Russian mob their favorite show).  Russian mobsters constantly pop up in American movies and television shows. U.S. cable stations have produced dozens of documentaries son the Russian mafia.

The new Russian ‘democracy’ is constantly in the news, as is its leader, Prime Minister Putin.  There is far more news about Russia than there was in past eras.

Many Americans now visit Russia as tourists, something that they could not do twenty years ago, trekking across the country or taking tours on the popular river boats.  I was just in St. Petersburg on a cruise ship tour and visited the palaces of the czars and the Hermitage museum (and learned that if I had taken a photo of islands the ship passed in the 1990s as I did in 2011 I would have been tossed into a prison).

Millions of Russian immigrants have flooded America over the last twenty years. Russian Transport studies the dual phenomena of an immigrant population in Brooklyn and the contrast of Russian Americans to traditional Russians from back home.

The Russians have always produced quality work.  Chekhov ranks with the world’s greatest playwrights and Leo Tolstoy with the greatest writers (along with Solzhenitsyn and Fyodor Dostoyevsky).  Baryshnikov was the best dancer, ever.  The Bolshoi and Kirov Ballets are as good as any dance companies in the world.

The boom in Russian plays, operas and ballets in the U.S. matches the excitement of Russian culture in Russia itself.  The government just spent $760 million to completely renovate the complex that houses the Bolshoi, installing the largest orchestra pit in the world (it holds 130 musicians).  This year is the 236th anniversary of the Bolshoi, which was founded the year that the American Declaration of Independence was signed.  They opened the season with a cultural nod to the U.S., employing their first American dancer, Gary Hallberg (then they lost the pair of star dancers).

The biggest reason for U.S. fanaticism over Russian culture this year, though, is the same as always --  the mystery of the Russians.  We want to find out everything we can about Russia and its plays and stories because they have always been taboo.  We feel the same way about China.

It seems that in American theater, as in American film and television, the old Red hammer and sickle logo is never going to go out of style.

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