School for Fools' Fails toLive UptoBook's Charm

Moscow Times

Sergei Kaplunov, right, plays ateacher inYury Pogrebnichko's unorthodox adaptation ofSasha Sokolov's novel.
One ofthe true literary wonders ofthe late Soviet period was Sasha Sokolov's novel “ASchool for Fools.” According tothe history books itwas written inthe 1960s, but its publication byArdis in1976truly brought ittothe attention ofthe world. Vladimir Nabokov's blurb calling it“charming, tragic and touching” didn't hurt.
The story isaremarkable one. Ayoung schizophrenic boy inaschool for children with special needs leads afull, rich life ofthe imagination, falling inlove, taking sides against enemies including his own psychologically split self and perceiving the wonders ofthe world around him nomatter what the reality may be.
A handful ofdirectors have dramatized the novel over the years, the latest being Yury Pogrebnichko atOkolo, the Theater Near the Stanislavsky House.
I find the combination ofSokolov and Pogrebnichko anear impossibility.
Sokolov's rich, unorthodox prose has aspectacular naivete encrusted initbythe firm hand ofatrue writer. Hehimself labeled his work “proetry,“ indicating that the superficial form may beprose, but that the inner, structural workings had the complexity ofpoetry. “ASchool for Fools” specifically was abook written from the point ofview ofaboy who possessed atremendous imagination, adeep sense ofidealism and, most important, aprofound awe before the mysteries ofthe world.
Pogrebnichko over the years has evolved amonotone theatrical style that heapplies equally toall texts, nomatter how different they may be. Whether heisstaging Nikolai Gogol, Alexander Ostrovsky, Anton Chekhov oracontemporary writer, Pogrebnichko's actors shuffle stiffly about the stage and interpret their characters with the same deadpan expressions occasionally broken upbythe same knowing grins.
There isnodoubting that Pogrebnichko's style issteadfastly grounded inthe director's personal artistic vision. His isastyle you will see nowhere else. Understandably hehas acquired aloyal following and isrevered byhis fans asamaster. Ihave seen numerous ofhis productions that powerfully revealed new aspects inold works.
„ASchool for Fools” isnot among them.
Pogrebnichko has spent most ofhis 25 years inMoscow exploring the secrets, details and realities ofthe Soviet experience. When staging Gogol's “The Marriage,“ for instance, hedressed his actors inthe rough quilted jackets worn byprisoners inthe Soviet Gulag. Itwas amarvelous artistic anachronism that sparked new meaning inthe familiar play.
A similar, Soviet-centric approach toTatyana Orlova's contemporary play „Occupation” worked well for another reason. Her play was amemoir oflife inthe Soviet period itmet the director's aesthetic oncommon ground.
Sokolov isanother thing altogether. What struck readers atthe time his first book appeared and what still strikes measIhold itinmyhands today isthat there isn't abreath of“the Soviet” init. This was one though only one ofits great triumphs. Written byayoung man living inthe Soviet Union, the son ofaSoviet diplomat, itwas abook proclaiming utter and total freedom byits mere existence. Itrejected the themes, language and images ofthe real world that existed around the writer.
To mymind, forcing this beautiful, fragile work back into apreset, Soviet-inspired stylistic istodoitadeep disservice.
That said loudly, Iadmired Yegor Pavlov's performance ofone-half of the schizophrenic boy atthe center ofthe story. IfInever fully accepted him ascorresponding toSokolov's young hero, hedid bring anadmirable artless simplicity toPogrebnichko's monotone style.
Also capturing some ofSokolov's lightness and wonder was Sergei Kaplunov, who plays the central role ofthe school's beloved teacher ofgeography. The fact that herecently died unexpectedly and isonly beginning toaccept that fact himself does not hinder him orthe boy from carrying onarich relationship.
Designer Nadezhda Bakhvalova attentively filled the stage with images culled from the novel arailroad, hospital beds, the model ofaskeleton and small bust ofPushkin.
It isalways difficult tosee one ofyour favorite literary works brought tolife onstage orscreen. Perhaps Iambiased and unfair inmyconclusions. But Inot only saw nothing new inthis production, Isaw nothing corresponding tothe original work atall.

John Freedman, 21.11.2012

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