Ever been curious about how a Russian director might stage a production of that nation’s most beloved plays? The Colorado Shakespeare Festival offers the rare opportunity to discover how one of Russisa’s top directors stages Gogol’s satirical masterwork, “The Inspector General.”
Boisterous and brash, marked by musicality and precision, the production now playing at the CMF has the bracing kick of a vodka shot. It leaves you a little short of breath, slightly stunned – and wanting more.
Efim Zvenyatsky, director of the famed Gorky Theater in Vladivostok, and a Russian Jew, has been in Boulder the past few months with some members of his troupe preparing the production as part of a cross-cultural collaboration funded in part by the Opaline Fund of the Jewish Community Endowment Fund.
I had the pleasure of meeting Efim for lunch just before the show’s sold-out and enthusiastically received opening night in the University Theater. CSF Producing Artistic Director Philip Sneed graciously arranged the meeting at Efim’s request, and joined us for a wide-ranging conversation about theater as well as Jewish life in our two nations.
A cosmopolitan and gracious man with a lively sense of humor, Efim was born in Birobidzhan, where his parents had been forced to reside when the Soviet Union formed the now-notorious Jewish Autonomous Region. Stalin relegated this remote and inhospitable territory to Jews, ostensibly to pursue Yiddish cultural heritage within a socialist framework.
Nothing at all grew there for the first 5 years, Efim noted. He still has family there, although part of his family now lives in Israel. Efim (whose name is the Russian equivalent of Chaim) explained that his mother was a cashier in a movie house and his youthful aspirations were fueled by the movies he saw there. At 16, he discovered the railroad tracks and left to make his life in theater. He was among a prestigious class of prominent Russian directors at the Moscow State Institute of Theater, and went on to direct across Russia as well as to become head of the Gorky in 1984.
Asked about anti-Semitism in Russia today, Efim noted that it was wide-spread and insidious, although it did not affect him personally because of his celebrity status. “I am one of the ‘good’ Jews who is useful and so they are proud of me,” he said through his translator, who also happens to be his daughter and an opera singer. Philip Sneed wondered if Holocaust denial existed in Russia and Efim laughed. “Whole of Ukraine!” he said with no need for translation.
Much of the conversation centered on the differences between theater in Russia and America. Here actors seem to treat their work as a profession, he observed, while in Russia actors regard it as an art. Russian actors tend to be better trained, he added, although that has been changing in recent years.
While he bemoaned the restrictions of the “metal curtain,” when American writers were banned and their work was unknown to the public, he also noted that with capitalism today theater has become more commercial and state funding cuts have resulted in a deterioration in quality.
Today, all the big Broadway shows are translated and staged in Russia by Russian companies that tour the country. Virtually all American culture is now available, he happily reports.
Efim has been working with Philip Sneed on numerous cultural exchanges, and Sneed and several CSF actors have performed at the Gorky. Gary Alan Wright, who co-stars as The Mayor in “The Inspector General,” acted in a hugely popular bi-lingual production of “Noises Off” at the Gorky.
On July 15 and 16, Boulder audiences will have the chance to experience a bi-lingual performance, when several Russian actors join the American cast. It is amazing how much audiences understand from the context, intonation and physicality, Sneed notes.
This exceptional collaborative venture has been underwritten by a grant made possible by Jorian Schutz, whose family founded Blue Mountain Arts, the festival’s primary sponsor. Jorian is the brother of Jared Polis, Boulder’s Congressman and longtime supporter of Jewish life in Boulder. The philanthropic spirit as well as the spirit of service run strong in the family. Boulder JCC audiences may recall that their mother, Susan Polis Schutz – now a filmmaker as well as a poet – presented her documentary on depression last fall.
Boulder is fortunate to have such high level cultural offerings, and it is gratifying to see audiences respond so warmly to “The Inspector General.” The acting is uniformly excellent, with stand-out performances by Lanna Joffrey and Jamie Ann Romero as the Mayor’s wife and daughter team, and CSF veteran Stephen Weitz in the title role. I always get a kick out of Sam Sandoe, who I have been enjoying in character roles for the past 35 years, although the entire ensemble is exemplary. The set and costumes are vividly imagined by the Russian designers, taking us on a journey through time that underscores the play’s universal message and timely theme.
The Shakespeare Festival has been presenting plays by other authors for some time. Gorky’s play deals with assumed or hidden identity, as so many of the Bards do, and is a sharply observed satire of government corruption, personal misdeeds and the foibles of human nature. “The Inspector General” is a natural fit, and a definite hit.
For tickets, visit coloradoshakes.org.