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«Competition» Short on Challenge
"The Moscow Times" ,
With his recent production of his own play, "The Competition," at the Et Cetera Theater, Alexander Galin has added to his growing mini-empire of plays running in Moscow. Galin, together with Nikolai Kolyada is one of only two playwrights in Russia today who I would say are living something of the good life. I don’t know how much money they make, but in Russia, really, who cares? I, for one, hope it’s a lot, although what I mean by the “good life” is that these two prolific writers, like none of their colleagues with the possible exception of Nadezhda Ptushkina and Pyotr Gladilin in very recent times, regularly see the fruits of their labor. In Yekaterinburg, Kolyada frequently produces his own plays, while throughout Russia his plays are often staged by others. In addition, Kolyada runs a school for playwrights that has generated several writers of promise. Furthermore, in connection with his courses, Kolyada has published several volumes of his own plays and those of his students — this in an era when the publication of plays in book form has nearly come to a standstill.In Moscow, Galin’s activities are of a lesser scope, but impressive nonetheless. In fact, it is legitimate to talk of a small Galin industry. Numerous of his plays — most directed by Galin himself — are running at several theaters around town. His favorite venue is the Sovremennik where he has four plays running, although he also has two shows in repertory at the popular Lenkom Theater. "The Competition" is typical Galin. It is an archly contemporary tale, as though it were conceived after the author saw some quirky story on the late-night news. The language is slick, if also forced — Galin is a phrase maker who delivers little comic pearls that are intended to roll off the actors’ tongues. When they do, they can be humorous, when they don’t — and they don’t always — they have that leaden feel of an artificially created joke. The basic story, about a group of Russian women who enter a competition in the city of Kursk to work in Singapore, is comic on the surface. But, as is usually the case with a Galin play, there is a darkness lurking beneath the surface. In this case, it is one of a pair of prostitute sisters who has been so traumatized by her experience that she can’t share in the fun and games the others are able to make themselves endure. Each woman is characterized by a certain turn of speech, a manner of gesture, or a predominant character trait. This doesn’t do much for adding depth of personality, but it tends to help stoke the laugh machine. Ninel Karnaukhova (Natalya Blagikh) is a sensitive, educated woman whose famous historian husband Boris (Anatoly Grachyov) makes so little money they can barely make ends meet. Olga Pukhova (Alyona Ivchenko) is a magician—she calls herself an actress—whose husband and partner Viktor (Viktor Verzhbitsky) is rich, but so belligerent that she thinks she wants to leave him. Tamara Bok (Marina Churakova) is a simple country girl whose unemployed husband Vasily (Sergei Plotnikov) is so broke he can’t even buy her a pair of sandals. All of them came to a movie house in Kursk where the competition for female entertainers is being held. Ninel will try to dance her way to victory, Olga will ply her magic tricks and Tamara will play the accordion. They originally thought the winners would be going to Japan, since the whole thing is organized by a Japanese entrepreneur (Tetsuzi Aoki), but no one backs out even when they learn the “lucky” ones will be going to Singapore to engage in shady activities. Also in their midst are two single sisters, Katya (Tatyana Vesyolova) and Liza (Maria Skosyreva), who we learn have been prostituted by their lively, good-hearted but rather sleazy mother (Lyudmila Dmitrieva). This has had an especially negative effect on the youngest, Liza, who often sulks in the corner. The catch in the plot is that the Japanese organizer, through his translator Albert (Nikolai Molochkov), informs the women that they cannot participate. It seems the married women must have their husbands’ permission, while the underage sisters can’t produce the required passports. But, being forceful, independent Russian women, they refuse to pack up and go home. The organizer is so impressed, he lets them perform their acts for him here in the back room. What this means for us is that we have the opportunity to listen to the life story of each woman and, through them, acquire a picture of the sorry state of affairs in Russia today. No less important is the image each woman cuts — all of them are strong-willed individuals who will be nobody’s patsy. This allows us to see them in conflict with their men, with whom, after a good deal of pushing and shoving, they do, however, make a grudging peace. Perhaps more than any Galin play I have seen, "The Competition" is marred by the formulaic perils and pat happy solutions it provides. You can see the conciliatory ending coming from miles away and even the attempt to make of Liza a token martyr just has no bite to it. Galin’s direction essentially consisted of making sure actors were in the right place at the right time and he appears to have succeeded. David Borovsky’s uninspired set is functional—we see an unkempt back room at a movie house cluttered with extra seats. "The Competition," as a play and a production, smacks of conveyer-belt theater. Maybe Galin’s next shipment of goods will be a little more challenging.