This is one of the coolest marquee walls I have ever encountered anywhere. It happens to be the place where you look to see what’s playing tonight at the Ilkhom Theater in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. There aren’t many major Russian-language theaters outside of Russia. The Russian Drama Theater in Riga, Latvia, is one. The Ilkhom, founded in 1976 by Mark Weil when the Soviet Union still seemed to be an eternal construct, rounds out the top two. Since the break-up of the USSR the Drama Theater in Riga, though continuing to exist, has only sporadically done much of interest. The Ilkhom, on the contrary, thrived on the international attention that the sociopolitical changes of the 1980s and 1990s brought. Weil, a fine director and a shrewd manager, expanded his theater’s reputation by taking it on tours, by connecting it to theater programs abroad – especially in Seattle, WA – and by doing productions himself at various theaters. I first encountered his work when he staged several productions at the Mossoviet Theater in Moscow. Tragically murdered in the entryway to his apartment building in 2007, Weil even today continues to be a strong tangible presence at the theater, and not only because of the oversized portrait that hangs in the stairwell that leads from the theater’s foyer to the stage downstairs. He did such an incredible job of building a strong team around him that the company, now headed by Boris Gafurov, continues to thrive, to tour and engage in international projects.
I “collaborated” with Weil briefly in 2003, although “collaborated” is overstating it seriously. But Weil did stage my translation of Nikolai Erdman’s The Suicide at the Meany Studio Theater of Washington State University in 2003. On his way home he came through Moscow and we met one afternoon in the canteen at the Mossoviet Theater where he pulled out a huge folder and showed me dozens, if not hundreds, of gorgeous production photos. Judging by the images, Weil’s staging of The Suicide was one of the most beautiful of any done of my translation. Weil talked with great affection of the actors he had worked with and went so far as to say that the production came together very well, even better than he had hoped for. If you know anything about Russian theater directors you know those are rare words. I remember Weil as a very focused, friendly man. He took time to look you in the eye and when he greeted, or was greeted by, actors passing by our table, he made sure that even the shortest communication was meaningful. He made human contact with us all. We kicked around the idea of my doing some more translations for him, although nothing came of it.
I visited Ilkhom for the first time in 2013 when they presented staged readings of three American plays translated into Russian for a program I was heading up, The New American Plays for Russia project. I was knocked out by the passion and intensity of this company. It is a legacy left by Weil and a tribute to the whole company that they have been able to maintain their focus for so many years after losing their founder. If you’re interested in learning more about Ilkhom you can start with a blog I wrote about the playhouse after my trip in 2013, or go to a series of blogs, beginning with this one, that the American playwright David M. White published after he was there on a working trip in 2014. I also did a video interview with American Lainie Mullen, who has worked at the Ilkhom for several years.