Cruel Games at the Mossovet Theater is not just the name of a forgotten play by Alexei Arbuzov, but a new genre by the theatre’s recently appointed artistic director, Yevgeny Marchelli. The play, which lasts two and a half hours, has the subtitle: A cruel play in two hours. In them, only half an hour – including the intermission – seems devoid of the director’s ruthless look at the stage and everything beyond it.
The new director’s first production for the Main Stage has a special, over-the-top purpose. This is not the first time that Marcelli turns to “cruel games” but it is probably the first time that they become a declaration. “Cruelty,” i.e. ruthlessness in the realization of his own idea, and “play” – the emphasis on the playful nature of the performance – are reliable pillars. Whether these will become a worthy foundation for the theatre is a question of time. Marcelli certainly has it and more so clearly feels it.
Staging Cruel Games, a play from 1978, is an obvious risk. Some critics have labeled Arbuzov’s dialogues obsolete and outdated. Its theme is eternal – fathers and sons – but its embodiment turns out to be a prisoner of time to those who were born decades later whom it is important to attract to the theatre today. Marcelli saw a potential “sleeper hit” in the play and decided to wake it up. Though the audience, which during the pandemic-induced, theatrical fast grew weary of theatre, gradually returned armed with tickets, QR codes, masks and prejudice.
Eye-catching posters, splattered with paint stains, promise the viewer something spectacular and audacious. They hint at artists as paint in the director’s hands, at the abundance of colors in the performance and at its scenography. It is here, as the action progresses, that artist Kai engages in creative pursuits in the areas of photography with models, body art and dripping – a form of painting where paint is spat out on a canvas.
The play’s space continued in the theatre’s foyer, created by Anastasia Bugayeva, lacks the signs of the seventies and eighties. This discourages some viewers who no longer expect historical authenticity from Shakespeare plays, but who seriously expect it when they go to a performance of a “Soviet play.” The white cyclorama – a monochrome plane like in a photo studio – is like a blank slate both for the director and for the characters. Everything here is conventional, modern, concise, and there is nothing superfluous to embody a play with exaggerated personalities.
In this black-and-white Moscow abode of Julik’s, who has been nicknamed Kai (Mitya Fedorov) since childhood, Nelya (Ekaterina Devkina), a drenched creature wearing a brightly colored pink raincoat, bursts in from the provincial town of Rybinsk. She has change in her pocket and behind her soul, and he has bills – parental debt is converted into printed letters and duty appointments. Belongings are skimpy, a suitcase and a doll puppet, but everything is important, as Neli thinks in front of her, and hurries to undress in front of the landlord – to effectively pay for the bed by bedding him. Her years are few and the dramas experienced are many, but all the characters in this play have this wealth in excess. Their aim is not to surprise, nor to pity. Kai’s apartment is a haven for the hapless and one repentant father (Vitaly Kishchenko), who is trying to atone for the Dostoyevsky-like childhood of his son Terenty (Ivan Rastorguev). The “child’s tears” here remain un-mourned behind the curtain; they cannot be discerned against the white background. There is a whole chorus of them here. The theatre’s singers in multicolored raincoats and shoe covers, fill the stage to make not a song, but a plea, “All I need is your love tonight” (TikTok’s hit). The voices are awe-inspiring. In this busy scene we see not the “crowd” of the theatre, and not the director’s commitment to the future – the maximum involvement of the troupe – but an urgent and almost, too-human desire to walk amongst the crowd’s bustling weekdays. Life is gray, only the raincoats in it are colorful or so it sometimes seems, especially when the dense clouds of uncertainty and loss descend upon us.
Even though in the play the sweet sometimes turn voluptuous (the restrained eroticism does not turn into vulgarity). The diagnosis here is the same: “You guys are living a dull life here. Sour, in general.” So rightly concludes Mishka, Anton Anosov’s character, who chases away the unpleasantness and transposes it into a guitar rendition. “All I need is your love tonight” does not sound as cheerful and reassuring as the immortal “All You Need Is Love,” though as a call and incantation to the disconnected long before the universal “social distancing,” it dares us to not squander love or at least to be kinder to one another. Arbuzov’s careless attitude to life, not as a vain risk, but as fleeting rudeness or indelicacy, wounds, breaks and, indeed, poisons us on film – throughout the play the scenes are separated by the sound of a camera shutter.
In Arbuzov’s play, the heroine from Rybinsk turns her attention to the fish tank in Kai’s apartment. Jellyfish swim across the stage instead of fish, spineless, like his twenty-year-old characters. They are grown up but not mature, living with memories of childhood whilst entangled in adulthood. Childhood is over, the new life that has come has not fully started but it is exhausted by longing and patience. Growing up does not happen automatically, it is a process, an education of feelings, an experience.
It’s indicative of how these play-acting kids, who have learned and realized everything ahead of time, are immersed in self-reflection and suddenly feel powerless (“I know everything. And I can’t do anything”). A childish confusion is revealed when faced with the brutal realities of adult life.
The focus is on children – the abandoned, the unborn, the great-aged, the infant, and the outpouring of their pains, caprices, impotence, and underlying resentments, all spill over the stage into the audience. “But what’s the best thing in the world?” Childhood apparently, which sounds out in the play and resonates in memory. Childhood and its overpowering relevance, which grows as a person grows, are expressed in the performance through a huge inflatable balloon dog, a descendant of Jeff Koons’ creation.
“People who play games.” “Games people play.” Homo ludens (from the Latin for “man who plays”) (with) people and played circumstances – this vulgar psychoanalysis can also be found in their attempts to be heard and to hear themselves – they scream, and on meeting they warn one another that adults “often lie” and children play adults, while adults play at being children. Nelia’s mother (Larissa Kuznetsova) has not kept her daughter from her stern father, who puts his faith above his daughter. The other adult (Yana Lvova) values oil more than her newborn daughter. After searching for oil, she will have to find her stolen child, and be able to raise him Whether she finds her motherly love or not is the question here.
Arbuzov, whose texts are characterized by lyricism and romance, closes the story just before New Year, but Yevgeny Marcelli didn’t make a happy ending beneath the Christmas tree. There is a cut-down tree on the stage, without garlands and decorations, next to which two lovers. Yet instead of a long-suffering happy ending for the actors and the audience, a sign reads: “The play is over. Thank you all” and the lights go out as if there was a sudden power cut. Cruel Games concludes with a “cruel” finale.
This overturned Christmas tree, this crossed-out New Year’s Eve miracle and this cut-off holiday finale, full of illusion and childish hopes for a new life that begins on the first of January, is a bold and fresh directorial move that is as brave as the choice of staging. Kai lives in an apartment with an open door, waiting for someone important and dear to enter so that everything will be transformed. It is both a human and theatrical challenge to let in the new without losing what has been achieved and what is valuable. We are all the more pleased that the Mossovet Theater has reopened its doors to new people and new opportunities and, in short, to a world of new possibilities.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.