The scene is a dingy hotel room somewhere in 19th century Russia, illuminated at times by a single candle. A packed audience of only 65 squirms in cramped quarters on the edges of the tiny stage, more or less trapped. It’s an apt setting for the bizarre business that unfolds before them, just a few shoddy feet away.
A crafty con man has just purchased a registry of dead serfs from local landowners, with which he plans to bilk the government out of tax credits.
The plot is from Nikolai Gogol’s “Dead Souls.” Valeri Fokin has written and directed an intriguing one-act adaptation with a keen eye for the macabre. It played the Kennedy Center’s Opera House — well, a tiny part of it, anyway — for six performances under the auspices of the Meyerhold Arts Center in Moscow, where Fokin is g.m. and artistic director. Kennedy Center president Lawrence Wilker imported the production for this solo engagement.
Fokin ignores the main events of the novel to concentrate exclusively on the tormented mind of the miscreant Chichikov (Avangard Leontiev), brooding in his room. And what a room it is — drab and sparse, furnished only with a bed and table, a chest of drawers, a single light. The floors creak. A filthy window emits a pallid light but allows no view. It is here that Chichikov is left to dream and suffer the nightmares of a misspent life.
The audience enters through the set’s only door, stepping around the feet of a supporting character who lies in a stupor in the corner. That the relatively sparse dialogue is spoken in Russian adds to the wonderment of this meticulous 90-minute production.
As the villain, Leontiev is mesmerizing as he unveils his traumas amid a full range of emotions. Greedy and officious one minute, he is a terrified weakling the next. Deft comedic timing translates into any language. The character is accompanied by his manservant Petrushka (Sergei Sazontiev) and his driver Selifan (Valeri Yeremichov), both deliciously repulsive as they stagger and lurch in delightful buffoonery.
Fokin’s direction luxuriates in the foibles of his characters and uses the intimacy of the theater to methodically engage the audience in the play’s many moods and twists. Long silences and periods of total darkness are boldly contrasted with frenetic activity. A climactic dream sequence featuring a platoon of ghoulish “souls” is a howl.