Tag Archives: Oleg Menshikov

A school for art and artists, Moscow

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Today this building at Prechistenka 32 in Moscow  houses two children’s schools – one for music (the left half, if you stand facing the facade) and the other for fine art (the right half). Surely there are many well-known contemporary artists and performers who have emerged from these premises. I don’t know any of them. What I can say is that when this was the Polivanov Gymnasium (high school) from 1868 to 1917,  it counted among its students at various times the future philosopher Vladimir Solovyov (1853-1900), and the future poets Valery Bryusov (1873-1924) and Maximilian Voloshin (1877-1932). I know that because of a small plaque that hangs on the wall under the eaves of the left side of the structure. That in itself is enough to send us looking for stories that may lay hidden here.
There are, however, two other reasons that make this place special in the history of Russian culture. In the mid-1990s a small hall in the left wing served as the stage for two very important theater productions. The first, transpiring in 1993, was the performance of Alexei Burykin’s N. Nijinsky, staged by and starring the matinee idol Oleg Menshikov, and produced by the brand new Bogis agency. Bogis (the name has nothing to do with “God – Bog,” but is an acronym of the two women who founded the agency – Galina BOGolyubova and Larisa ISaeva) would become a leader in quality, non-state funded theater in the coming years. The second was Olga Mukhina’s Tanya-Tanya, directed by Pyotr Fomenko in early 1996 for the new, as-yet homeless, Fomenko Studio.
Tanya-Tanya was a landmark in Russian drama and theater. This was a time when no critic, journalist, director, actor or any wo/man on the street would ever have dared to think that a new play was of any interest to anyone. It was the mantra of the age; silly and ignorant, but all-powerful. Tanya-Tanya, however, blew a hole in that wall of darkness. Almost everyone suddenly loved a new play. The Fomenko Studio, already popular with hip, young audiences in Moscow, was raised several notches higher in the pecking order of the capitol’s top theaters, Fomenko himself – a well-known director in his 60s who suddenly could do no wrong – was splashed with more of the gold dust that would soon turn him into a living legend. Mukhina was celebrated as the first and greatest playwright of modernity. The young actors in the Fomenko company, already minor stars, fit Mukhina’s restless, charmingly aimless young characters so perfectly and so convincingly that their own canonization as great performers of their time was advanced several more steps.
The famed notion of “New Russian Drama” would not come about for another five or six years. But when it did, it and its proponents had Mukhina and Tanya-Tanya to thank for the interest it accrued. After the success of Tanya-Tanya, other playwrights and new plays began making inroads into the public consciousness. Directors who had scorned them began seeking them out. Actors who had not wanted to perform in them began asking for them. Audiences suddenly seemed to realize what a bore it was to do nothing but watch plays in which you knew in advance every turn of the night’s coming action, and they began clambering for new plays. This led to a ground swell that came together as the tsunami now known as Russia’s new drama.
The first droplet of that ground swell took place right here in this building. The rather modest door you see immediately below is what separated our past from our future on those cold January/February nights when Tanya-Tanya opened.

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One detail needs to be added to this story, a true one that has become obscured by mythology over time. Nowadays, everyone speaks without blinking about Fomenko’s brilliant production of Tanya-Tanya. In fact, it was staged by Andrei Prikhodko, one of Fomenko’s students, who played the lead role of Okhlobystin. Prikhodko’s staging was set to open in mid-January, but at the last minute invitations were canceled. We later learned that Fomenko had attended a dress rehearsal, was not pleased, and moved in to take over the entire project himself. When the show actually did open approximately two weeks later, the programs still listed Prikhodko as director, but with Fomenko’s name looming over it as producing director. Other than those on the inside, no one now will ever know the extent to which Fomenko changed Prikhodko’s work, but in coming years Prikhodko’s name would disappear from the production’s credits. Prikhodko now pursues an active theater career in Ukraine. A TV version of Tanya-Tanya, filmed in 2001, may be seen in its entirety on YouTube.
In fact, the historical performances of Tanya-Tanya were preceded by a similar event – the mounting of Alexei Burykin’s N. Nijinsky in February 1993. Although only three years separated these two productions, they occurred in vastly different worlds. Nijinsky appeared in the era of a deep-freeze in terms of playwriting. Critics and audiences may have felt safe praising the cast of this unusual play, which split Nijinsky into two characters; they may have loved the story; they were willing to be excited by the spectacle; but they were not ready to admit that a writer, a lowly, unknown writer, could have had anything to do with that.
I will never forget my astonishment as I watched review after review come out praising Menshikov and his partner Alexander Feklistov, raving about the fascinating tale, welcoming the appearance of a non-state production company (that was very new at the time), but unloading vitriol on the “hapless” writer who “had no idea how to write a play” and was “saved” by the brilliant production team. Because of Menshikov’s fame and popularity, this show was written up in every print source Moscow had to offer (and that was a huge amount of sources in 1993), and all but two eviscerated – or entirely ignored – Burykin. Curiously, both of these dissenters were apparently freedom-loving individuals, for one was named Yury Fridshtein, the other, John Freedman.
I don’t know this for a fact, but I strongly suspect that the appearance of Tanya-Tanya in this building on Prechistenka Street came about thanks to N. Nijinsky. You see, the Nijinsky team tried out several famous directors during the rehearsal period. One was Pyotr Fomenko, with whom Menshikov had worked in a famous production of Caligula in 1990. But whatever clicked that time did not click again during the preparations of Nijinsky. Fomenko, like the other famed names, was sent packing and Menshikov ended up taking directing credits. But surely Fomenko remembered this unorthodox performance space – usually used by children’s orchestras – when it came time to open Tanya-Tanya.
You can see bits and pieces of N. Nijinsky on YouTube in numbered fragments. Begin here with No. 1.

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Dead Show “Gravestone,” Moscow

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This, as Lewis Carroll might have said, is one of the curiouser memorial plaques in Moscow. Maybe anywhere. It lies in a corner of the Aquarium Garden just off of Triumphal Square (known popularly still as Mayakovsky Square), in front of the right side of the Mossoviet Theater. It first showed up in the year 2000, when Oleg Menshikov, the popular actor and founder of the 814 Theatrical Association, decided to mark the closing of his production of Alexander Griboyedov’s Woe from Wit with a bit of macabre humor. (Menshikov’s shows, until he took over the Yermolova Theater a few years ago, invariably played in Moscow at the Mossoviet, a venue where he once briefly was a member of the company.) Menshikov had a gravestone-like marker made up with the inscription “Production of A.S. Griboyedov’s play Woe from Wit, 1998-2000″ and he sunk it into the ground. Later he added other “dead” shows to the plaque – Maksym Kurochkin’s Kitchen, 2000-2002, and Nikolai Gogol’s The Gamblers, 2002-2005.
However, don’t take everything you read, especially on gravestones, to be the gospel truth. The Gamblers is actually still performed from time to time to this day.  The story on that is as follows: Menshikov is famous for being a dynamic kind of guy. He doesn’t linger long in any once place, doing any one thing. When he begins getting bored with something, he moves on. His credo is that it’s better to close a show when it’s at the peak of its popularity than it is to keep playing until audiences realize the old magic is waning. And anybody who has ever seen an old, wheezing, gasping show that should have been closed long ago will understand this well. Thus did Menshikov close both Woe from Wit and Kitchen when both were still packing audiences in like sardines in a can, raisins in a box, stars in the sky. He did the same with The Gamblers in 2005, but his friend, and one of the performers in the show, Viktor Sukhorukov, was furious. Viktor simply did not understand why anybody would stop playing a production that was so fantastically successful. And so he badgered Menshikov until Menshikov gave in and brought the show back to life. Surely there are few people capable of badgering Menshikov like that, so let’s all stand and give Sukhorukov a round of applause. Very rare instance, indeed. By the time Menshikov brought the show back, however, the news of the “death” of The Gamblers had already been impaled in stone for all of eternity. True or not: RIP – 2002-2005.

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I was present at the unveiling of the second renewing of the plaque on June 25, 2002, the day of the last performance of Kitchen. My wife Oksana Mysina played one of the leads (Queen Kriemhild) and so I was there to attend the big afterparty, which for many, who regretted that the show was ending so soon, did resemble a funeral as much as a celebration. Anyway, after everyone had had plenty of drinks and all the celebrity guests were full of smiles and laughter and had tried out a few wobbly dance steps, Menshikov called everyone out into the late-night dark of the park. The Woe from Wit gravestone was covered with a veil that, when it was ripped off, revealed the birth and death dates of Kitchen itself – a show we had seen still living and breathing just hours before.  At that time nobody knew Menshikov was susceptible to being badgered, so we all took it as final proof that Kitchen would never rise again. At least not in that incarnation. And we were right.
A few more details on this marker.
It spends several months a year buried under snow, so that in the winter few are aware of its existence. Actually, because this is a corner where snow gets dumped when it’s shoveled off the sidewalk, the marker remains buried even for some time after much of the snow is gone. These photos were taken shortly after the last snow disappeared, but well before any of the grass or other greenery began coming in this spring. It seems fitting for a gravestone to be surrounded by gloomy, raw earth and tangly dead branches…
Finally there is the lovely fact that shortly after Kitchen was added to the marker, some grim grave robber came into the park one shadowless late night and made off with the whole plaque as a souvenir. Menshikov had to have a second version made and this time, the word is, he attached it to an incredibly deep and heavy base that goes who-knows-how-far into the earth.
Still, not all is gloom and doom here, as you will notice if you click on the last photo below and take a good look. It so happened that as I was taking that picture, I entirely by accident caught a couple embracing and kissing against the neon backdrop of an American diner that stands across the park from the Mossoviet Theater. As the Latin scholars said, art is short but love is long. Or something like that…

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