Tag Archives: Kama Ginkas

Old Actors House, Moscow

Click on photos to enlarge.

dscn0851

Today another phantom, and almost in the very same place. My last entry was about a place with some small cultural significance that no longer exists on the north side of Pushkin Square. Today I’ll do a bit of reminiscing about a place of genuine cultural importance that once was located on the south side of Pushkin Square. This was the Actors House, or, as the old-timers still refer to it over two decades later, VTO (the All-Russian Theater Organization).
What is it now? Nothing. A big, fat, glorified nothing.
In the past it was really quite something.
With a bit of a stretch we can reach back to 1877 to find its beginnings. That was when the Society for Mutual Aid for Russian Actors was founded. It was followed by several other similar social aid programs for needy actors, but the name Russian Theater Organization (RTO) first appeared in 1894. That was changed to VTO in 1932 and that proud name remained in force until the mid-1980s, when a series of successors bearing various names approximating the “Theater Union of the Soviet Union/Russian Federation” came into being one after the other. And yet, the old-timers still call the building at Tverskaya 16 “VTO” even though this particular address lost connection with theater way back in the 1990s.
Now, what happened to this building is interesting because it is telling of the age. It was one of the first arsons used to wrest valuable property out of the hands of people who weren’t using it to make money by those who were just itching to make money. I said “arson,” didn’t I. Yes, I did. And I meant it. Although I don’t believe I can prove that. You see, like so many murders and hostile takeovers and “sudden fires” that have happened in Moscow and Russia over the last 25 years, nobody ever officially solved the mystery of what happened to the old VTO. Oh, someone somewhere said that a short circuit somewhere started a fire and blah-blah-blah. To which I, and everyone else who knows about these things, say, “Bull.” That’s what they used to fluff it off. Everybody knows perfectly well that the VTO was torched. The firemen got there too late to save the organization, but just in the knick of time to save the building’s structure. The VTO (now called the Actors Union) was hurriedly given digs elsewhere in the city (near the Arbat) and this prime real estate was quickly put in other hands. After a couple of years of backstabbing and infighting, a sparkling new shopping center – with elite offices in the upper floors – opened its doors. In “honor” of the displaced Actors Union, the shopping center was named the Actors Gallery. Or was that mockery? Not sure on that one.
Anyway, it’s nice to see bad folks get their comeuppance now and then. I say that because the economic crisis that pounds silently though heavily at Russia’s doors these days has taken down even the Actors Gallery. When you walk up to the entrances to the short-lived shopping center (the VTO and its successors are around 140 years and counting – the Actors Gallery lasted less than 20 years, I’d guess), you see permanently closed doors and empty windows on the street level.

dscn0858 dscn0990 dscn0994

Meanwhile, Moscow actors and theater people over 60 years old still speak dreamily about the VTO, its famous restaurant, its tiny old elevators filled to the gills (4 or 5 people tops) with stars, its concerts, its social work, its work in preserving the history of Russian theater and promoting those who worked contemporaneously. It was an astonishing place. I had the great fortune to spend a good deal of time there because an extraordinary woman named Eleonora Matveevna Krasnovskaya sort of took me under her wing. She didn’t do it because she liked me, but because this tiny woman with more energy than four tanks had a habit of taking under her prodigious, angelic wings virtually everyone who ever came within spitting distance of her office on, I believe, the fifth floor. “Well, come on in here!” she’d bark at you. “What do you want now?!” I wanted everything and she was just about up to delivering it all. I needed to contact a Nikolai Erdman scholar in Tomsk? Done. I wanted to get into a sold-out show? Done. I wanted to meet someone who never met with anyone? Done. I wanted advice on what was hot and new? Done. I mean, Eleonora Matveevna, or Nora, or Norochka, as I ended up calling her, was the gate-keeper to Nirvana. She didn’t like everything in Nirvana and she’d tell you so. “John. I got you tickets to thus-and-such a show. Now, I didn’t like it much myself. But everybody’s talking about it. So, you must see it.” Got something else to do that night? Tough. Nora got you tix to the hottest show in town. Nora sent me to the first shows I ever saw directed by Kama Ginkas, Yury Lyubimov, Mark Zakharov, Pyotr Fomenko, Valery Fokin, and virtually everyone else, I guess. She once thought I needed to have a chat with Naum Orlov, a director who had made his fame working in the city of Chelyabinsk, and so when he was in the building one day, she sat me in a chair in the corridor and brought him to me. It was her way of promoting “provincial” talent, which, indeed, was horribly undervalued in the Soviet period. She didn’t like that and she bucked it. She introduced me to the playwright Alexei Kazantsev – another one of those things she just figured I needed to do. She had no hopes, I don’t think, that I could appreciate what she was doing for me, but she was on a mission. If I was thick in the head, that was my problem, not hers. As it happened, I ended up becoming quite close to Kazantsev. I was thrilled when my old friend founded one of the most important theaters at the turn of the millennium – the Playwright and Director Center – and I was devastated when he died suddenly of a heart attack only a few years later.
I had the special honor on occasion of taking lunch with Nora in the famed VTO restaurant, where for 3 to 5 rubles you could eat as if you were at Maxim in Paris. If I happened to come by before lunch, she’d drag me down there, disgusted at me for some reason, but intent on giving me some culture, dang-blast it, and some food. Look at the photo immediately above – you see the “turret” at the left. The restaurant was in the ground floor in the turret. I can’t walk by without seeing Nora pushing food in front of me, introducing me to people, regaling me with stories and always reminding me why I probably wasn’t worth all this attention. Did I forget to add that her eyes would twinkle when saying things like that? Did I really need to?
When I desperately wanted to get into a sold-out concert organized by Grigory Gurvich (he had not yet opened his soon-to-be famous Bat Cabaret Theater), Nora took care of it. When Oksana Mysina and I – not yet married – desperately wanted to get into a sold-out concert by Alla Bayanova, a romance-singer who had lived for decades in exile in Bulgaria but had now come home to Moscow, it was Nora who whisked us past the ticket takers.
Oh, yes, on Oksana. Nora once informed me that I was accompanying her out to an event in Melikhovo, the estate where Anton Chekhov lived for much of the 1890s. “You need to see this place,” Nora told me, “maybe it’ll even do you some good.” So I met the hired bus at the appointed time and Nora and I took seats next to each other to the left of the aisle, about 1/3 of the way back behind the driver. I was a bit dreamy that day. I had met Oksana perhaps a month before and I wasn’t thinking about much else at the time. The bus door slammed shut, lurched forward and we were off. I still remember where we were when Nora asked about Oksana – it was on Zemlyanoi Val, just after we had passed the Kursk train station. And Nora, assuming all rights to meddle wherever she so pleased, asked point blank, “So, I hear you’ve taken up with that Mysina girl from the Spartakovskaya Theater. Is that so?” I wasn’t the least taken aback. I hadn’t told Nora about that, but I certainly never would have doubted that she would know whatever there was to know out there. “Yes,” I said, probably a bit cowed. She turned to me and let her eyes burn into me for a second or two and said, “Do you love her?” I looked back at her, surely still cowed, but now less so, and said, “Yes, I do.” She shifted in her seat and looked straight again again. “Good!” she said. “She’s a fine young girl.”
Somewhere in my archive I have a photo of us taken later that day, in Melikhovo. Or maybe I lost it in my last move. What I do know is that I can never lose Eleonora, Nora, Norochka, just as I’ll never lose the sensations I experienced under her wings at the old VTO.
Nora, by the way, just turned 90. Happy birthday Norochka Matveevna!

dscn0854 dscn0991 dscn0996 dscn0855

 

 

Advertisements

Fyodor Dostoevsky Bust, Wiesbaden, Germany

Click on photos to enlarge.

DSCN0359 DSCN0360 DSCN0358

Today we break the rules a bit, always an occasion for celebration. This is my 270th entry on this site and it will be the first time I will write about photos taken by another. It has always been my rule to use only photos that I take of places I have been myself and seen with my own eyes. But when my wife Oksana Mysina told me she was going to be performing on tour in Wiesbaden with her theater company, all the little rules in my head broke down. Wiesbaden! Dostoevsky was in Wiesbaden! Dostoevsky lost “all his money” (or so they say) in Wiesbaden! Dostoevsky wrote his novel The Gambler about the last time he ever played there, thus getting out from under a terrible contract with a nasty publisher, while finding a good wife and, even, perhaps, some happiness, into the bargain. Wiesbaden! Oksana, my own wife, almost my own flesh and blood, would be right there at the casino (her hotel and theater were located right across the street from it)! How could I justify not taking advantage of this? I could not. And I would not. That became even clearer when I did some armchair research and learned that a bust of Dostoevsky by the Russian emigre sculptor Gavriil (a/k/a Gabriel) Glikman was erected right there beside the casino on February 3, 1997. As it happened, Oksana’s hotel was located directly across the street from the bust – Oksana could just walk out the door, cross the street, and spend time with Fyodor Mikhailovich, if she chose.
Of course, to put this into perspective, you have to know a little about Oksana, whose most famous performance (running now for 22 years) is a one-woman show based on the character of Katerina Ivanovna (Marmeladov’s wife) from Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment. Staged by the great Kama Ginkas in 1994, K.I. from ‘Crime’ is one of the key landmarks of Russian theater of the last three decades, and it continues to play to full houses today. As such, there are not many on this planet who have spent more time in an intimate, artistic embrace with the great writer than Oksana. Figure that my friend Oliver Ready recently spent a couple of years translating Crime and Punishment for Penguin books. Okay, a couple of years of intimacy. Oksana has been inside Dostoevsky’s head, and has carried him around in hers, for over 22 years… Shall we talk about accomplishments?
In fact, while Oksana was walking around the bust photographing it, she called Ginkas on the phone to tell him where she was. As such, the photos you see here bring together Ginkas, Oksana and Dostoevsky all in a single breath or two. Moments like that are what give life its sheen, you know.

DSCN0367 DSCN0365 DSCN0368 DSCN0377

A bit about the bust itself. Gavriil Glikman created it in 1994 as you can see by the inscription on the back of the neck in the photo immediately above. The plaque on the front of the pedestal indicates that Glikman gifted the sculpture to the casino in 1996, which may well be true. But it would appear that the actual installation and unveiling of the bust took place on February 3, 1997. Glikman is an interesting figure. He was born in in 1913 in the Vitebsk region (that is, not far from Marc Chagall’s home turf), and Russian Wikipedia tells us that, as a child, he would go to Chagall’s workshop in Vitebsk and watch the great painter work. When he was in his ‘teens his family moved to Leningrad, which is where he spent the greater part of his life. Known primarily as a sculptor, many of his closest friends – Dmitry Shostakovich, Yevgeny Mravinsky – knew that he also painted. However, because his personal style did not fit with the demands of Soviet art, he rarely if ever showed this work. We are told he made an attempt to exhibit his paintings in 1968 and ran into trouble serious enough that his career was threatened. Glikman emigrated to Germany in 1980, settling in Munich in 1982. He lived in Munich until his death in 2003.
The story of how exactly this bust ended up where it did has eluded me. Why 1997? (The 225 years since Dostoevsky’s birth mentioned on the plaque seems a kind of far-fetched date to me.) Why Wiesbaden (the fact Dostoevsky lost tons of money here hardly seems the proper reason to commemorate the great writer)? One Russian blog site puts forth the conjecture that Glikman ran up a bigger bill than he could pay to the casino and the two sides agreed to write the debt off for a sculpture in exchange. It’s an attractive explanation, but I see absolutely no corroboration anywhere in any other sources. One Russian-language travel site suggests that a visit to Wiesbaden by Mikhail Gorbachev in the mid-1990s is the impulse that set things going. A journalist who had been with Gorbachev told Glikman about Dostoevsky’s Wiesbaden connections, etc. That sounds thin and unconvincing – at least on the level that the story is told. Would Glikman, who had painted and sculpted Dostoevsky many times before, really not have known about the Weisbaden connection?
Whatever the backstory may be, the bust is a powerful piece of work. It is incredibly, I would say, aggressively, and, of course, entirely purposefully, crude. Bits and pieces of face, along with bits and pieces of bronze, pile up in the wrong places, out of line, and out of whack. Eyes are crooked, as is the nose and mouth. The ears are big chunks slapped on the side of the head. The haircut is almost humorous to me, rather like Dostoevsky’s mother put a bowl over his head and cut off everything that stuck out below it. All taken together this image epitomizes the power of character, a vessel of suffering and deep-seated intelligence. It all adds up to Dostoevsky as we rather expect he was.
One thing surprises me greatly, however. Look at the second photo below, particularly, and you will see how beautifully and how naturally this Dostoevsky melts into the surrounding ecology, the trees, the leaves, the bushes, the sky. Dostoevsky, in this setting, is just another element of nature. And that is what is so unexpected. This is a writer who rarely wasted his powers of description or observation on nature. Dostoevsky never gives us those convoluted, head-spinning descriptions of fields and forests that Tolstoy and Turgenev are so famous for. Dostoevsky is always rummaging around in the heads of his characters (rather like Oksana rummages around inside his in order to play K.I. from ‘Crime’). He never – or almost never – has the time or inclination to notice flowers blooming or trees growing. There is, of course, that famous exception in The Brothers Karamazov where Ivan exclaims to his brother Alyosha, “Though I may not believe in the order of the universe, yet I love the sticky little leaves as they open in spring. I love the blue sky…” Konstantin Mochulsky, in Dostoevsky: His Life and Work, wrote that, “Leaves, ‘little sticky green leaves,’ are a favorite symbol of Dostoevsky’s. For him all the beauty of God’s world is contained in this humble image. A little green leaf is to his heroes the most irrefutable proof of the existence of God and the coming transfiguration.” But you see how it works in Dostoevsky – he comes back to this one image, never feeling the need to expand it. In fact, even in The Karamazovs he trots out his beloved sticky, green leaves, jumps to a generic declaration of love for the blue sky, and then leaps back into people, their deeds and what their enigmatic hearts hold.
So it is that the image of Dostoevsky blending so organically and naturally into the green world around him in the park behind the casino at Wiesbaden is a revelation. For Dostoevsky, indeed, was a work of nature himself. A huge, powerful, moving, exciting, irritating, thrilling piece of nature. Look how beautifully he blends in with the flowers – the flowers! – in the last photo below. He stands virtually unseen at the far right and there is something wonderful and right in that. Then watch the video at the end that Oksana made so I could feel as though I had actually been there. Instinctively (they have been inside each others’ heads for over 22 years!) she spins around him, ending by spiraling up and directing our sight at the sticky green leaves of a tree canopy above, and on through them into the blue sky that Dostoevsky claimed so to love.
In short, don’t tell me I haven’t been here! Thank you, Oksana, for the virtual trip.

DSCN0400 DSCN0394 DSCN0392 DSCN0289

 

 

Emil Gilels plaque, Moscow

Click on photos to enlarge.

DSCN9201The structure at 25 Tverskaya Street is one of those many in Moscow that has a rich cultural heritage. I have already written about the fact that playwright Nikolai Erdman lived here in the 1950s with his ballerina wife Natalya Chidson. I’ll have occasion to write about others who occupied apartments here, but today we consider Emil Gilels (1916-1985), one of the preeminent pianists of his era.
I, a child of rock and roll, find it ironic, at least, that the first time I ever heard the name “Gilels” was when I was having a conversation with a KGB agent who was following me around Washington, D.C., where I lived in the early 1980s. I’m not quite sure whether the agent befriended me or I befriended him, but the fact of the matter is that we often got together on our lunch breaks to chat about all things – or, at least, many things – Russian culture. It was during one of these chats that my acquaintance mentioned meeting and accompanying Gilels somewhere. The lack of understanding was probably clear on my face and he asked, “You do know who Emil Gilels is, don’t you?” I blithely admitted I did not and my interlocutor eliminated my ignorance on this topic for ever more. “He is the greatest living pianist,” he said. Those words stuck; I never forgot them. When I came to Moscow in the late 1980s and learned that Nikolai Erdman, the topic of my first book (and the reason that the KGB agent had tracked me down in the first place), had lived side-by-side with Gilels, I could not help but be amused. Indeed, the Lord works in wondrous ways.
But that’s a story for another day.
Gilels, like many of the luminaries who lived in this attractive “Stalinist” building, moved in shortly after it was built in 1950. When you look over the plaques on its walls selectively honoring some of its famous inhabitants, you notice that they all began living here in 1950 or 1951. This was because this huge residential building occupying the better part of a long Moscow city block was built to house the elite. Specifically, it was built to provide housing for people who worked at the Bolshoi Theater, although one didn’t necessarily need a direct connection to the Bolshoi to get in. Gilels would be a good example of that. As a famous, touring solo musician, his connection to the Bolshoi would have been tentative, but it would have been enough to put him on the list of people waiting for prestigious apartments when they came available.
In fact, the history of this building is rather complex and quite interesting. Originally, this block was occupied on the north end by a church known as the Church of the Annunciation (erected in the 17th century) and on the south end by an eye hospital that occupied an old private estate  built around 1773. The church, as was often done in the Stalin era, was knocked down in 1929, and construction of a new apartment building was begun alongside the eye hospital. However, Stalin decided in the late 1930s to widen Tverskaya Street and give it a more imperial look. As such, the eye hospital on the lower half of the block was put on rails and moved off of Tverskaya Street, making room for a new building. (Not only was it moved back by about 50 meters, its facade was turned sideways to face what is now the Young Spectator Theater, which now is famously run by Henrietta Yanovskaya and her husband Kama Ginkas.) However, World War II interrupted plans to build the new structure, and construction only got under way in 1949. As indicated above, it was completed a year later. Wisely, the authorities engaged the same architect who had built the first half in the early 1930s to build the new half in 1949. His name was Andrei Burov. He connected the two structures by way of three tall archways somewhat to the left of the middle of the city block. Both sections look virtually alike today.

DSCN9203 DSCN9190 DSCN9198

One assumes that the building looked much spiffier during Gilels’ tenure here (he lived here until his death in 1985). The facades now are rather grimy and neglected. The runaway capitalism of the 1990s still leaves scars in the way that storefronts do not match the building’s decor or design. The place needs a bit of sanding and paint, but it’s also obvious that even a little work would make the building sparkle. It is a potential jewel standing two blocks north of Pushkin Square.
(At this very moment, the street is completely torn up as current Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, for some reason, decided to undo Stalin’s widening of Tverskaya and is now putting Muscovites through the painful process of having to stand by and watch everything be ripped up as the authorities narrow Tverskaya back down – this time with widened sidewalks and bike lanes.)
But back to Gilels. He began playing piano at the age of five and his first public performance took place in 1929, the year that church was destroyed to make room for the right half of his future home. He performed with success in Odessa in the early 1930s then gained national fame when he won the first All-Union Musician’s Competition in 1933. He graduated from the Odessa Conservatory in 1935 and immediately began winning prestigious competitions in Europe. In 1945, as World War II was ending, he was one of the first Soviet soloists given permission to perform concert series abroad, and in 1950 – the year he moved into the building we see here – he formed a famous trio with Leonid Kogan on violin and Mstislav Rostropovich on cello. He was the first Soviet musician to perform the Salle Playel in Paris in 1954, and the following year became the first Soviet soloist to tour the United States.
Of the famed trio, one Western critic has written: “This group stayed together for most of the 1950s, and broke up largely because Kogan and Rostropovich had very strong political differences and could not continue to get along. What a pity – I’m not sure there has ever been a more spectacular chamber ensemble.”
Russian Wikipedia keeps the list of Gilels’ awards at a neat 22, almost half of them coming from foreign countries. He was, in fact, one of the great musicians of his age, and the 35 years he spent at 25 Tverskaya Street were the time of the flourishing of his talent and fame.

DSCN9200 DSCN9204 DSCN9207 DSCN9211

 

 

Ginkas’s White Room 2, Moscow

Click on photos to enlarge.

DSCN4698.jpg22 DSCN4712.jpg22

It was bound to happen sooner or later. At some point I was going to have reason to write about the same place a second time. I’m sure I will even come back to some places a third time – maybe even this one. This is a return to Kama Ginkas’s White Room at the Moscow Young Spectator Theater, located at 8 Mamonovsky Lane. I wrote about it once already, you can read that entry here. That was just nine months ago and I had no idea – maybe no one did – that the sad story I told then was about to come to an end. In brief, it is this: Kama Ginkas staged a historical production called We Play Crime, based on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment in this small building in 1991. The idea at the time was that Ginkas would use this little affiliate attached in spirit, but not in fact, to the Young Spectator Theater for many of his future works. But evil stepped in. An unscrupulous manager at the theater somehow irreversibly leased the little building away for 24 years to some business concern. Ginkas’s brilliant use of the space in that 1991 show could not be repeated or built upon, at least not in the same space. He lost access to this place that suited his art and vision so well. Now, however, this little building has been returned to the ownership of the theater and Ginkas wasted no time putting it to use. But not only is he putting it to theatrical use, he has had the whole place renovated in the style of the time it was built – some 200 years ago. But those are not the only changes. The first photo in the final block of photos below shows the space’s new entrance. In 1991 we walked into the space directly from the street (see the door at left in the two photos above). Now we walk around the building from the other side (see photo immediately below), and enter through a courtyard and patio. Once inside we are greeted by several gorgeous, brightly painted rooms that imitate what rooms might have looked like in the old days. There is a blue library with an old velvet sofa, a reddish sitting room with a fireplace, a video room where you can sit and watch video clips of the theater’s shows, a long, green corridor that leads from the entrance directly to the white performance space.  (You can see the library and sitting room in the last block of photos below. In fact, the final photo shows how the architects left cutaways in walls in each room, revealing materials still left over from the original construction 200 years ago.)

DSCN4720.jpg22 DSCN4717.jpg22 DSCN4724.jpg22 DSCN4727.jpg22

Ginkas tells the story of the renovated space well in a post that was made to Facebook. Here is a translation of the pertinent segment of his post:
Hurrah! I congratulate myself, Moscow Young Spectator Theater and everyone who understands! Today, unofficially as yet, we performed our production on the new (old!) stage that we call ‘Games in the Affiliate.’ Friends! For those who understand these things. This structure is at least 200 years old. It may be one of the few buildings left in Moscow after the fire. Do you understand? After Napoleon! After almost all of Moscow burned. This tiny little building in the empire style. Nobody knows what was here. But it still retains the charm of the old Moscow buildings of the nobility. And so – we renovated it and gave it (as best we could) the feel of old Moscow comfort. In the awful modern plaster drywall, without which you cannot do these days, unfortunately, we cut small windows that allow you to see the real wooden walls which have been standing there for two centuries. There is a tiny cafe next to a fireplace where you can have coffee or an inexpensive open-faced sandwich. There is a little library where you can sit and, by the light of a lamp, look through books about theater, and not only… There is a tiny room where you can watch videos of our shows….
I revisited this spectacular space last night for the first time since 1991. It was quite an experience, I must say. The occasion was Ginkas’s new production called On the Road to… Like We Play Crime, it is based on separate chapters from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, but, unlike the former production which focused on the characters of the intellectual assassin Raskolnikov and and the wily detective Porfiry Petrovich, this one looks at Raskolnikov and the mysterious figure of Svidrigailov, who, as Ginkas puts it, is a jester, a killer and a philosopher. Ginkas quotes from the old show liberally, but repeats nothing. He plays with the same old devices of shadows, a window, a bucket, but uses them in entirely new circumstances. Did I have the feeling that I was traveling back in time? Almost. Almost, but not quite. Because, like any great theater artist, Kama Ginkas is of the present moment. Always. And On the Road to... is of the present moment. It tells the hard, harsh and very sad tale of two men who have lost their way, for whom murder has been a sign of their lives and character, although, surely, neither one ever planned on that. But this is not the place to write a review. I am here today to celebrate the return to the Moscow theater map of one of its great spaces, lost since 1991. Now back in service and at the beck and call of Kama Ginkas and Moscow theater-goers.
A comment on a few of the photos above. Note the beautiful, clearly-traced shadows of a single tree spreading across the facade of the building. You can see it best in the second photo at the top. This ghostly apparition seemed so perfect, so appropriate, that I took that second shot specifically so as to enhance the arboreal shadow. It, indeed, was a night of shadows and specters and ghosts coming to life in a way that enriched the lives we are living today. That’s theater, yes. That’s Kama Ginkas.

DSCN4669.jpg22 DSCN4678.jpg22 DSCN4680.jpg22DSCN4697.jpg22 DSCN4696.jpg22

Solomon Mikhoels plaque, Moscow

IMG_6583.jpg2

Solomon Mikhoels (1890-1948), the great Jewish actor, was born in what is now Latvia, became famous in Moscow, and died at the hands of Joseph Stalin’s henchmen in Minsk, Belorussia (now called Belarus). For some reason he is one of the souls whose presence I especially feel in Moscow. There is no good reason for that, although a handful of experiences have brought me quite close to him in a way. One was a few years back in New York City. I was there with Kama Ginkas and we had a free morning to spend. I had heard there was an exhibit devoted to Mikhoels showing at the Jewish Museum and Kama said he’d love to go. So we walked across Central Park from the west side to the east side and bought our tickets. It was a small but effective exhibit – there were photos, paintings, videos, posters, programs and some artifacts. Kama was pleased to have seen it and was especially taken with the video clips of Mikhoels as an actor. (Earlier he had used a video clip of Mikhoels in his production of Dreams of Exile in Moscow – the dancing actor was projected on a white sheet that was set fire from beneath before disintegrating into flame and air.) I appreciated everything we saw but can’t truly say I was moved until I was on my way out. The final exhibit was a tiny little thing on a pedestal under glass. It was Mikhoels’ famous round wire rim glasses – the rims bent, the glass broken. These, a small text informed me, were the glasses Mikhoels was wearing when NKVD agents purposefully ran him over in a car to kill him. The glasses were thrown to the roadside where  someone retrieved them, making it possible – and necessary – for me to see them over 60 years later in New York. I stood before the crumpled little exhibit and wondered at the world – its cruelty, its villainy, its hatred and the fragility and defenselessness of the individual human being when something or someone in that world chooses to do him or her evil.

IMG_6580.jpg2IMG_6585.jpg2

This slightly ugly plaque of Mikhoels hangs on the wall of Moscow’s Malaya Bronnaya Theater. When Mikhoels was alive and worked here, it was the State Jewish Theater, often known by its acronym of GOSET. As the inscription reads, the actor worked here from 1922 until his death in 1948. But these are all readily available facts. And I said above that a few incidents have brought me close to Mikhoels, so let me move on to the second, which occurred in this very building. My wife Oksana Mysina and I were showing a couple of members of the American Double Edge Theatre company around Moscow. The founder of Double Edge, Stacy Klein, has a deep interest in things Jewish and has made several productions over the decades that incorporate the Jewish experience. So Oksana called an actor friend in the company of the Malaya Bronnaya Theater and asked if he would take us up to the dressing rooms. One of them bears a small plaque stating that this is the place where the great Mikhoels prepared to the take the stage each night. It looked like the typical museum room – desk and sofa in place, even a robe hanging on the back of the door. However, we were told, there is a strong legend in the theater that this is not Mikhoels’ actual dressing room – the real one is up one flight of stairs and isn’t nearly as impressive. So we trudged up there and looked at a blank door in a nondescript corridor which everybody at the theater believes was actually the real place. Why the switch? Apparently the people in charge of making the dressing room into a memorial thought the real room upstairs, far from the stage, was unfitting of a great actor. Surely, they considered, the great actor should have been able to stand up from his comfortable sofa in front of his large dressing table mirror and step out the door and onto the stage. Even if he never did. After all, when you kill a man and call him a hero fallen tragically in an accident, you can do anything you want with him, can’t you? Of course you can. And so they did. But the best was still to come. As we were coming back down the stair the actor acting as our guide told us that numerous actors over the years have sworn that they have encountered Mikhoels’ ghost as they hurried down the stairs to make their own entrances. Yes? No? Ghosts? Stairwells? Murder? Perfidy? Who am I to question what several generations of actors at the Malaya Bronnaya Theater, the former State Jewish Theater, have experienced? All I can say is that Oksana, Double Edge actors Carlos Uriona and Matthew Glassman and I all understood what our guide was saying about the stairwell. It was a place where you could meet someone unexpected. Whether that would be the ghost of Solomon Mikhoels or not, I can’t say. I also can’t say that Stacy shared our experience. But she was amused. And I have never walked by, or walked into, that theater since without thinking about that stairwell – or about those glasses I saw in New York.

IMG_6577.jpg2IMG_6587.jpg2 IMG_6584.jpg2