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Notes from the Russia Case offerings at the Golden Mask Festival

The odd couple: Lyubov Strizhak's Fear

Equally effective was a timely adaptation of a Rainer Werner Fassbinder film at the vibrant Gogol-Centre, a new and leading venue with four resident companies and a popular youthful following. Fear, adapted by young playwright Lyubov Strizhak from Fassbinder's Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, is one in a trilogy of works by Latvian director Vladislav Nastavshev that adapt famous films (the others being Visconti's Rocco and His Brothers and Lars Von Trier's The Idiots, each in some way dealing with the negotiation of borders and the plight of outsiders). The story concerns the socially unsanctioned love affair between a young Tajik migrant worker and an elderly Moscow widow. Unfolding with a bold, forceful grace on a spare arena-style stage that made dynamic use of a set of white plastic tables, this well acted and moving piece was also among the most overtly political, dealing head-on with the rising xenophobia that has plagued Russia in general and Moscow in particular in recent years. (The one other piece in the program with comparable political punch came from the tiny but intrepid Theater.doc, an independent documentary theater, run by Elena Gremina. Documentary theater is the mode of choice for much political work on Moscow stages, and perhaps not surprisingly Fear's playwright Strizhak is well associated with the form.)

In all, I took in half of the total program of the Russia Case, in a packed week of theater and discussion, as part of a group of Americans traveling under the auspices of the Center for International Theatre Development. Needless to say, politics were in the air throughout, and not only because of recent events in Ukraine. The theater in Russia is far more culturally important and influential than theater tends to be here. And while not overtly political in what it stages (except in some notable instances like those just mentioned), it remains a site of many progressive and antiauthoritarian voices as well as big personalities and vested interests. Even the Taganka jubilee was marked by internal turmoil and public scandal, stemming in part from Lyubimov's contentious public departure from the theater in 2011 but sparked by a historical exhibition on the walls of the theater that provoked defacement from outraged members of the company.

More broadly and urgently, however, the Russians and their international guests mulled over the future of theater in a country drifting rapidly toward ultranationalist extremes. All seemed to agree that whatever happens, this year's Russia Case will likely not look like next year's, and that artists and audiences are in for a wild ride.



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