French, Italian, Russian pieces populate event

They’re just rubbing it in this year at Lincoln Center Festival.

First up in the international theater division of this annual summer showcase, running July 7-26, were the French, who effortlessly established themselves as the smartest kids in the room with “Les Ephemeres,” Ariane Mnouchkine’s epic treatment of the fragile, fleeting nature of happiness in the civilized society of modern-day France. The Italians also came to town, with Piccolo Teatro di Milano’s production of Goldoni’s satirical “Trilogia della Villeggiatura,” flaunting themselves, as they always do, as the prettiest and funniest people at this party.

And then the Eastern Europeans showed up to claim their ground as the most politically savvy crowd at the festival, which was positively swarming with troupes of Russians, Hungarians and Poles.

The Russians established themselves as the heavyweights in this company with the Maly Drama Theater’s staggering production of “Life and Fate.” Adapted and staged by Lev Dodin from the great underground novel by Vasily Grossman (completed in 1960 but suppressed in the Soviet Union until 1988), the physical production was a marvel of theatrical engineering. Taken together with the unnerving content — of Soviet suppression and persecution of its own citizens during WWII — the show was simply shattering.

The emotional nucleus of the piece is the uncertain fate of a nuclear physicist and his Jewish family, trying to survive in the poisonous, anti-Semitic atmosphere of Moscow at the end of the war. As the physicist tries to cope with the escalating hostility at work, he’s haunted by the last letter written by his mother (the performance of a lifetime from Tatiana Shestakova), just before she is led off to die.

But even as this principled scientist struggles with his conscience, the play’s larger political issues literally force themselves upon the entire family — as they do upon the audience — by the inspired staging device of allowing concentration camp prisoners parallel access to their home. On this spatial plane, which encompasses locales in Germany and Siberia, characters both known and unknown to the family fight their old ideological battles about Soviet government.

In the process, Grossman finally gets to make the devastating political point that got his novel banned — that for those suffering and dying in misery, there is no difference between Fascism and Communism.

“Boris Godunov,” Pushkin’s epic play about the fierce internal struggles for the Russian crown after the death of Ivan the Terrible, is overtly political to begin with. But in the stark modern-dress production devised by British theater director Declan Donnellan for the Chekhov Intl. Theater Festival, the 19th century drama feels like tomorrow’s bad news.

Between the ferocious performance energy and the striking modern imagery — which includes a textually superfluous but amusing seduction scene staged in a garden fountain — the play artfully slides out of its historical setting and into a modern-day Russia where the laws of political chicanery still apply in the eternal fight for power. As Godunov the peasant-imposter presses his claim over Dimitry the monk-pretender, it’s deliciously clear we could be watching the bellicose antics of Nikita Khrushchev and Mikhail Gorbachev, or Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, or Vladimir Putin and any or all of the above.

At a glance, the rollicking production of Chekhov’s “Ivanov” that Hungarian director Tamas Ascher helmed for Budapest’s Katona Jozsef Theater wouldn’t seem to have a political bone in its head. Chekhov’s depressed landowner is played with the requisite moroseness but with none of the 19th century Romantic airs that normally cling to the character. In fact, this Ivanov seems as comically clueless — and as witlessly attractive — as any modern slacker hero, which for once makes the adoration of his admirers entirely plausible.

But something more is afoot in this farcically overblown production, which Ascher has updated to Hungary during the 1960s — an awkward period after the failed revolution of 1956 when the country was back in the Soviet bloc but undergoing tentative reforms. That certainly explains why the Hungarians in the aud howled at the broad inside jokes about the cement-block decor, drab fashions and cynical humor of earthy characters living in a Soviet society and avidly thirsting for some kind — any kind — of entertainment to lighten up their bleak existence. Even a suicide.

At the end of the day, no presentation in this year’s fest would seem to be more personal and internal — and less overtly political — than Poland’s Narodowy Stary Teatr production of “Kalkwerk.” Taken from a suicidal gloomy novel by Thomas Bernhard and rendered even more depressing as adapted, designed and directed by Krystian Lupa, the drama revisits the murder of a crippled woman by the husband who kept her in an abandoned factory and used her as an experimental subject for his insane thesis on the human auditory sense.

But hold on — that’s not a laboratory rat being tortured for the sake of science. It’s a helpless woman in physical and mental thrall to her sadistic husband. And while plenty of people come and go in this madhouse, none of them think to stop the abuse. In one rational moment, the crazy scientist even acknowledges that, while men have to be talked into becoming experimental subjects, a woman can be coerced by brute force. Not political? It is in some circles.

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