By John Freedman
Published in The Moscow Times: February 5, 2009
Vasily Shukshin is one of the cultural figures from Soviet times whose works easily made the leap into a new era. Shukshin's short stories, the movies he based on them and the characters he played in those films all remain popular and entirely accessible to a contemporary audience. All you need to verify my claim is to check out the Theater of Nations' production of Shukshin's Stories. You can almost hear the audience's collective heart melting as the show's comic episodes advance from one to the next.
Shukshin, who died at the age of 45 in 1974, was one of those natural wonders, a native of Siberia. He came with the toughness, the wisdom, the clarity and the wicked sense of humor that geographical location instills in its native sons and daughters. Perhaps taking inspiration from the short but glorious Siberian springs and summers, Shukshin excelled at writing brief, pithy stories. They almost always were about simple folk, hard-living people whose bouts with drinking, lying and cheating — and owning up to all of that — give them a unique and always paradoxical perspective on life.
Shukshin's Stories is a potpourri consisting of 10 segments drawn from different tales. It was directed by Alvis Hermanis, the founder of and mastermind behind the New Riga Theater in Latvia.
Hermanis, making his directing debut in Russia with this show, brought an almost aggressively light touch to his work. No matter what the tale — a young man hoping to marry a tantalizing woman he sees on the street; a son returning to visit his family after building a successful life in the big city; a clumsy worker buying a pair of boots as a gift for his long-suffering wife; and even an account of a suicide that occurs when a man can't reconcile himself to family life — everything is permeated with a strong sensation of affection and warmth. People are bumblers. They are silly and inadequate to the task of living their lives, and yet all have big hearts beating in their breast.
One might quibble that Shukshin's Stories is more of a love fest than Shukshin probably intended. In fact, his tales are hard-edged and unrelenting. Not infrequently, they draw blood in significant quantities. Hermanis and his cast miss most of this, and it is especially galling in tales like the one of the suicidal husband, or the man who escaped from prison just three weeks before he was to be released because he couldn't live another day in confinement.
Headed, though not dominated, by the stars Yevgeny Mironov and Chulpan Khamatova, the cast sometimes works overtime to bring an aw-shucks, down-home feel to their characters. At its worst, this can be grating as actors fake folksy intonations and walk around with loping country gaits. At its best — Pavel Akimkin playing a painfully awkward but severely love struck young man who is determined to make the town beauty his wife — it can be extremely engaging.
This show's limits are highlighted by what is arguably its greatest strength — the set devised by Hermanis and Monica Pormale. It consists of four benches on an empty stage backed by enormous panels bearing photographs Pormale took in Shukshin's home village of Srostki, in the Altai region. Pormale's photos, especially her extremely detailed portraits of actual village residents, provide an undeniable authenticity that the actors rarely can compete with. As I stared into the wizened features of an old blind man's face in a digitally detailed, 2.5-meter close-up, I found it difficult to be serious about the young costumed actor trying to play someone like him.
Also impressive in a way that undermines the production's authenticity are the rousing recorded performances of folk music that accompany the transitions between segments while the panels with Pormale's photos are moved on and off the stage. As we listen to the inspiring choral performances, we once again are reminded of the gap separating what is real from what is imitation.
Setting such nitpicking aside, however, one would be hard-pressed — to say nothing of ill-advised — to deny the wealth of good feeling that Shukshin's Stories generates. It is a celebration of a beloved Russian writer and of the people he wrote about. Should anyone doubt that this writer and his works are timeless, let them only gaze upon the joy spectators experience when seeing his literary world brought to life on stage.
Shukshin's Stories (Rasskazy Shukshina), a production of the Theater of Nations, plays Feb. 16, 17, 24 and 25 at 7 p.m. at the Theater Na Maloi Bronnoi, located at 4 Ulitsa Malaya Bronnaya. Metro Pushkinskaya. Tel. 629-3739, 629-5397, 690-4093, 728-6649. Running time: 3 hours, 45 minutes.