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«Quixote» Cause to Celebrate
"The Moscow Times" ,
Since opening the Et Cetera Theater in 1993, the popular actor Alexander Kalyagin has spared no effort in an attempt to make his a quality playhouse. The effort, more often, has been more visible than the quality. Which is precisely why the appearance of “Don Quixote” gives reason to rejoice. “Don Quixote,” by my count the eleventh production in the venue's repertoire, is easily the best. For the first time on his own stage, Kalyagin looks as if he has something to lose and something to prove rather than as if he has merely come to remind us of his place among the dozen most famous faces among Russian actors. If that last phrase sounds like harsh criticism, it is not intended so. My point is that for the first time in these six years, Kalyagin has paired himself with a director whose task is not merely to exploit Kalyagin's fame, but to draw out the actor in him by encouraging him to challenge the stereotype of his own image. That is where Alexander Morfov, a talented director from Bulgaria, comes in. Most anyone else would have taken the easy way out when casting Kalyagin in a show based on the classic novel by Miguel de Cervantes. Kalyagin, who chalks in well under six feet and carries a healthy body on a substantial frame, is a dead ringer for what we expect Sancho Panza to look like. It is a mark of the achievement shared by Morfov and Kalyagin that in the actor's best moments, I could not imagine Quixote being anything different. My tight focus on Kalyagin's Quixote is not coincidental. For that invariably is where this show succeeds best. Morfov, who last year brought to Moscow a spectacular production of Maxim Gorky's “The Lower Depths” with the Ivan Vazov National Theater from Sofia, Bulgaria, has a flair for complex mass scenes. In “The Lower Depths,” he set up fascinating, swirling interactions among large numbers of actors at the same time, redirecting the play away from the usual focus on conversations among two to four people at a time. In “Don Quixote,” he attempted also to fill the stage with movement and shifting waves of energy in the characters surrounding Quixote. However, these scenes are performed thinly by the Et Cetera actors. It's not that anyone performs badly, because no one does. But they lack the sense of being an ensemble, of being integrated parts of a whole. With Vladimir Simonov turning in an even, though routine, performance of Sancho Panza, the focus settles on Kalyagin. This production, in Morfov's own dramatization, signals its departure from the traditional Quixote story at the outset. In a short prologue, a trio of soldiers bursts into an old man's home on a windy night. Their purpose is to arrest the man, for, as rumor has it, thirty years ago he was Don Quixote. The nameless oldster (played by Kalyagin) insists he was never Don Quixote and tries to get rid of the intruders by claiming he was Sancho Panza. When that fails, he fakes dying and the soldiers flee in fear. Alone again, the old man sighs, "I was insane and Don Quixote both; now I'm only crazy." As the man commences reminiscing, the story of Don Quixote unfolds before our eyes. Morfov did not attempt merely to represent the novel on stage. He provided a few key scenes that establish an understanding of the characters at the center of a new story rather than refer us specifically back to the original source. We see the arrival of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza at the rundown inn which Quixote mistakes for a castle. In wild scenes varying in degrees of gaiety, mockery and cruelty, we see the innkeeper and the local lowlifes knight the unsuspecting traveler; Quixote's sorrowful attempt to free a trio of convicts; and a disastrous encounter where Quixote mistakes a troupe of actors for the retinue of a marauding giant. Through the power of his own imagination, Quixote transforms the simple peasant girl Aldonza (Maria Skosyreva) into his spectral, elusive lady love Dulcinea del Toboso (danced by the ballerina Yekaterina Shtanova). Kalyagin's Quixote, in these scenes rounding out the first act, emerges as a tenacious man with a sensitive, even fragile soul. He sees nothing of the reality around him because his eyes are turned inward on his own melancholy optimism and belief in beauty and justice. The second act essentially continues the story line set in motion by the prologue. We witness the lowly inn dwellers, once Quixote's persecutors, telling stories about him for a foreign chronicler. Now that his name has become a part of history, they are happy to be associated with him and embellish the base truth in heroic words. But this show's reason for being comes in its final scene and epilogue, when we witness Quixote and Sancho Panza returning defeated from their bout with windmills. The great idealist and optimist Quixote can no longer go on. He has seen the errors of his ways, the folly of his convictions. Disillusioned, he passes his armor to Sancho Panza, who now is inspired with the pathos of his master's former quest for justice. Morfov's point, that the burdens of idealism are great although someone is always ready to carry on, is well taken. And Kalyagin's performance of the forlorn Quixote after his "abdication"— filled with painful regret and inevitability — is powerful indeed. Eduard Kochergin provided the warm, rough-edged set whose primary constituents are gunny sack, rope and wood adding up to the expansive internal courtyard of a two-story Spanish roadside inn. In the finale, this space gives way to a close-up of a broken bridge over whose breach Quixote ultimately cannot pass.