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Journey Into Darkness
"The Moscow Times" ,
Mikhail Bulgakov's story "Morphine" tells of a young doctor in the provinces in 1917 who battles the ravages of drug addiction as Russia's political state of affairs deteriorates around him. Bulgakov, the author of the classic novels "The White Guard" and "The Master and Margarita," wasn't just pulling a plot out of the air. He himself was a provincial doctor between 1916 and 1919, during which time he was dangerously dependent on drugs. It is a predicament that one can rather easily imagine occurring again in present times. In his dramatization of "Morphine" at the Et Cetera Theater, Vladimir Pankov brings a two-pronged approach to Bulgakov's tale. On the one hand, the production impresses as a relatively faithful reproduction of sensibilities that might have held sway around the time of the Russian Revolution. Although the set by Maxim Obrezkov and the costumes by Sergei Agafonov and Natalya Zholobova are not realistic, they use a few well-chosen details to suggest a time and place that correspond to our image of the world 100 years ago. On the other hand, Pankov gave his production a highly contemporary feel by laying bare the psychological vortex into which the main character, Dr. Polyakov, is pulled. This is done primarily through his use of music and the musicians who perform it live. Pankov calls his brand of theater "soundrama." On a superficial level, this is a manner of incorporating music into the theatrical process with purpose. Music for Pankov is not a mere mood-enhancing element, but an integral part of action, characterization and atmosphere. This is especially appropriate in the case of "Morphine," for Dr. Polyakov's sufferings and joys are inextricably intertwined with music — he was abandoned by his wife, an enchanting singer whose memory gives him no peace. Like a figment of Polyakov's imagination suddenly becoming reality for a few moments, she slips in and out of the action, always in the garb of her greatest role, the treacherous Amneris in Verdi's "Aida." Things begin as a lone figure sits crouched at the center of an empty stage whose perimeters are blocked off by the high planks of a wooden fence. The stage is dark but light shines out eerily from beneath the slats. Finally, the squatting figure tumbles over onto the floor as several of the segments of the fence do the same. These are actually benches that become key building blocks in all of the objects that are built on stage throughout the show — a cart, a cell in an asylum, a doctor's table. As the benches clatter to the floor, the stage is overrun by noisy intruders; mostly nameless characters played by actors and musicians who comprise the world of patients and colleagues around Polyakov (Alexei Chernykh). A drinking bout ensues with a group of men encouraging the doctor to join them. When he joins the bacchanalia, it is the first inkling that he may have a weakness that requires watching. Pankov simplified Bulgakov's narrative even as he embellished the relating of it through music and action. In the original, Polyakov's story comes to us through the prism of an old friend, another doctor who found his diary and publishes it. On stage at Et Cetera, the tale-within-a-tale device is discarded in favor of simply presenting Polyakov's story as it unfolds in his journal entries. Pankov thus avoided wallowing in the cliches of literary theater and created a show that comes to us directly and without interference. Of the two catastrophes muddling Polyakov's brain, the most important is the loss of his wife. The descent of Russia into political chaos seems to register only superficially in his thoughts. Conflict and anarchy may hang in the air, but they find concrete expression in Polyakov's life only in connection with his failed marriage. Whether treating patients or killing free time, Polyakov cannot imagine his present or his future without his past. When perusing a newspaper for the schedule of the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, he sees that "Aida" is playing. That means the love of his life may even now be taking the stage to ply her feminine wiles. Costumed as Amneris, Polyakov's former wife (Oksana Korniyevskaya) often appears to dance with him, to taunt him, to sing to him or merely to observe him indifferently. Following one dance, she guides him into the arms of a shy, nondescript woman and leaves — this is Anna Kirillovna (Tatyana Vladimirova), Polyakov's medical assistant. Anna Kirillovna becomes Polyakov's savior and tormentor. When he is suffering from excruciating pain, she gives him an injection of morphine. He's horrified by it at first, but quickly begins to like the deadening effect it has on his nerves. At this moment, the music created by Pankov's SounDrama Studio seems to hit a warp in the airwaves. A squeaking violin, whistling sounds and a plunked cello are joined by banging shovels, shuffling feet and clattering tin pails in a jazzy, ethereal mix that gives expression to Polyakov's state of mind. Everything on stage can become a musical instrument at any moment. The benches are drums. Tin cups, when worn like badly-fitting shoes, clack out a percussive beat as Anna Kirillovna staggers across the stage. The actors' rhythmic breathing establishes a pulsing hum that hangs in the air. In one long crescendo of orgiastic morphine madness, the air is rent by the thundering sounds of a techno discotheque with Polyakov leading the way of the revelers. Before he ever knows what hit him, Polyakov becomes a slave to morphine. Anna Kirillovna realizes what has happened but is incapable of refusing his demands. As the source of his temporary, chemically-induced bliss, she also becomes his lover. Their lives are joined through their pain and their self-deceptions. Polyakov stoops to any lie or any flattery in order to get his daily fix. Even as he can barely stand or sit up, he swears that his condition has no bearing on his ability to serve his patients. Chernykh's performance of Polyakov is excellent, especially as his character descends into the darkest, most sinister corners of his addiction. Having started out as a rosy-cheeked, rather blank-eyed youth, he visibly grows older and more animal-like with each advancing scene. He delivers a compelling and convincing portrayal of a man whose heart and soul are being sucked right out of him. Pankov made no effort to transform "Morphine" into a cautionary tale, and this keeps an edge on the story even in those moments when things go over the top. The musical segments occasionally drag on longer than necessary, but there is never a sense that this production seeks to teach us cheap lessons. Pankov offers a unique and affecting vision of a man trapped by his own flaws and weaknesses. The rest is entirely up to us. We can measure ourselves against what we see and hear, or we can choose to believe this is a tale about someone who has no connection to us at all.