BWW Reviews: Tuminas' EUGENE ONEGIN Keeps You On Your Toes
As a taste of theatre from a foreign culture, City Center's presentation of the Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre of Russia's production of director Rimas Tuminas adaptation of Alexander Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, is intriguing from the moment you open your program and see actors and designers billed as "Honored Artist of Russia," "People's Artist of Russia" and, my favorite, "Honored Worker of Culture of Russia."
The limited Cherry Orchard Festival run is bound to attract New York's sizeable community of Russian-speaking theatregoers, as the play is performed in its native tongue. My Russian-speaking guest was quite thrilled by the production. For the rest of us, a bit of preparation may be in order to appreciate the evening beyond the pleasing, frequently abstract, visuals and the boisterous (recorded) music.
From my seat midway up the orchestra section, none of the three screens flashing the English translation of the dense and wordy text of Pushkin's verse novel were situated so that one could comfortably follow along and also observe the actors, so familiarity with the story is greatly advised.
Even so, Tuminas' broad theatrics - which include a whimsical turn by a dancing bunny (Mariya Berdinskikh), a symbolic rolling of billiard balls across the stage and the weary, tragic heroine slow dancing with a stuffed bear - aren't exactly clear literal translations.
Played as a memory, middle-aged Eugene Onegin (perpetually grim-faced Alexei Guskov) recalls the days when, as a snobby youth reluctant to settle down (Viktor Dobronravov), he rejected the love of country girl Tatyana Larina (Eugeniya Kregzhde), only to find her irresistible (and unattainable) many years later when she marries into royalty and becomes a princess.
Told with chunks of Pushkin's verse, more narration than dialogue, the slow-moving story is played out in three and a half hours, but Tuminas, set designer Adomas Yatsovskis and choreographer Angelica Kholina continually throw up attention-grabbing visuals.
A troupe of ballet dancers whirl across the boards, blasts of snow flood the stage, a "wanderer with domra" (Ekaterina Kramzina) injects eccentric pathos and 97-year-old Galina Konovalova - at least the evening I was there - gets rousing applause nearly every time she speaks. It's all reflected by an enormous tilted mirror far upstage.
I'll leave it to Russian literature scholars to say if any of it enhances understanding or shows particular insight into Pushkin's work, but as a quirky entertainment, this Eugene Onegin certainly keeps you on your toes.