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Georgy Alexi-Meskhishvili (born 1941) has gotten around throughout his career. One of the great Georgian theater designers of his generation, he has worked extensively in Russia and the United States (including the Metropolitan Opera in New York), leaving quite a mark in both of those countries. I won’t be able to recall exactly the first time I encountered his work, although it was probably when I saw all the shows of the stunning Moscow tour of the Rustaveli Theater of Tbilisi, Georgia, in Moscow in 1994. Those sets to soaring, eye-opening and heart-rending productions by Robert Sturua (Meskhishvili did not design them all) were fabulously eclectic, suggestive and beautiful. The use of large expanses of open space, coupled with well-considered props, seemed to be the epitome of theatrical to me. Here’s what I wrote about Sturua’s rendition of Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle in an article about that tour for the journal Slavic and East European Performances ( later reprinted in my book Moscow Performances: The New Russian Theater 1991-1996):
“The set by Georgy Alexi-Meskhishvili implied a forlorn outpost. Battered fortress walls lined the walls of the large, empty stage, the center of which often revolved, delivering or carrying away actors in statue-like poses. A few artist’s implements stood bunched at forestage right (the Storyteller’s “studio”), a messenger occasionally appeared atop a kind of Trojan horse, and spare props such as a bed, a wash tub or a scaffold (in Act III) were brought in from time to time. But the stage was primarily an open platter that served up the actors and the action.”
(A little more research indicates that I actually probably first encountered his work in 1992 or 1993 – this would have been Temur Chkheidze’s production of Schiller’s Love and Intrigue for the Bolshoi Drama Theater of St. Petersburg – although I apparently did not write about it, so I can’t offer up a fresh impression here.)
Later I saw numerous sets that Meskhishvili created for Lev Dodin’s Maly Drama Theatre and Valery Gergiev’s Mariinsky Theater of St. Petersburg, and numerous more that he created for Sturua’s many productions in Moscow at the Et Cetera Theater. You can see a bit of one of those shows, The Tempest, on YouTube. It’s well worth it. Meskhishvili has worked in London, Dusseldorf, Helsinki, Paris, Bordeaux, Venice, Munich and Bologna in Europe. He also created sets and costumes for productions in Tel Aviv and Buenos Aires, and he was a founding member of the highly-regarded Synetic Theater in Washington, D.C.
What I did not know when my wife Oksana and I arrived for a three-week residency with the New York Theatre Workshop at Dartmouth College last August, was that Alexi-Meskhishvili had taught design in the theater department at Dartmouth for 20 years. In fact, he apparently had just cleaned out his office and headed back to Tbilisi shortly before we arrived in August 2015. He joined the faculty as a visiting professor in 1996. So, not only did I find myself routinely walking the same halls that he had walked for so long, I also heard his former students referring to him with love and affection as Gogi, the Georgian diminutive for Georgy. It all struck me as slightly bizarre and quite fascinating.
Alexi-Meskhishvili – for at least part of his tenure at Dartmouth – occupied office 117 in the Hopkins Center, certain aspects of which you can see in these photos. The first two shots in the block immediately above show the design workshop that is located on the ground floor of the Hopkins Center. The three photos below show some of the Dartmouth students’ design work that would have been done under Alexi-Meskhishvili’s tutelage. The display cabinet is located in the Hopkins Center basement, adjacent to the entrance to the Bentley Theater space (directly under the Moore Theatre space) where most student productions are performed. I hazard to say that most of the design models show the Meskhishvili influence. Compare, for instance, the last photo below with the set you see in the video of The Tempest above. I definitely see a connection. These designs are not the typical sit-comish kitchen or living room scenes that American theater throws at us so often.
Alexi-Meskhishvili returned to Tbilisi in the late summer of 2015 in order to devote his time more heavily to the Georgy Alexi-Meskhishvili Modern Theater Art School at the Rustaveli Theatre (the school officially opened in 2014). According to an announcement on the website of the Georgian Ministry of Culture, the school is free of charge to the students (hear that, United States?). I wrote to my friend Maya Mamaladze, a Moscow-educated Georgian theater scholar and critic, and asked if she could share any details about the school. She replied that she attended a student exhibit in the foyer of the Rustaveli Theater in October 2015: “Very good works, models and installations,” she wrote.
Alexi-Meskhishvili’s own work has pulled down a bundle of awards, if you’re into things like that. The one I find of particular interest – not because of the award itself, but because of the project – is the Felix award for best design at the Berlin Film Festival in 1989. This was for his work on Ashik-Kerib, the great Sergei Parajanov’s last finished film.
Pamela Howard, in her book What is Scenography? asked a large number of designers from around the world to answer the question posed by her book title. I can’t say that most of the respondents shined in their answers. Alexi-Meskhishvili, however, gave a good one: “Scenography – playing the game by my own rules in the magic box of stage.”