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School for Fools' Fails toáLive UpátoáBook's Charm
Sergei Kaplunov, right, plays aáteacher ináYury Pogrebnichko's unorthodox adaptation ofáSasha Sokolov's novel.
One ofáthe true literary wonders ofáthe late Soviet period was Sasha Sokolov's novel AáSchool for Fools. According toáthe history books itáwas written ináthe 1960s, but its publication byáArdis iná1976átruly brought itátoáthe attention ofáthe world. Vladimir Nabokov's blurb calling itácharming, tragic and touching didn't hurt.
The story isáaáremarkable one. Aáyoung schizophrenic boy ináaáschool for children with special needs leads aáfull, rich life ofáthe imagination, falling inálove, taking sides against enemiesáŚ including his own psychologically split selfáŚ and perceiving the wonders ofáthe world around him noámatter what the reality may be.
A handful ofádirectors have dramatized the novel over the years, the latest being Yury Pogrebnichko atáOkolo, the Theater Near the Stanislavsky House.
I find the combination ofáSokolov and Pogrebnichko aánear impossibility.
Sokolov's rich, unorthodox prose has aáspectacular naivete encrusted ináitábyáthe firm hand ofáaátrue writer. Heáhimself labeled his work proetry, indicating that the superficial form may beáprose, but that the inner, structural workings had the complexity ofápoetry. AáSchool for Fools specifically was aábook written from the point ofáview ofáaáboy who possessed aátremendous imagination, aádeep sense ofáidealism and, most important, aáprofound awe before the mysteries ofáthe world.
Pogrebnichko over the years has evolved aámonotone theatrical style that heáapplies equally toáall texts, noámatter how different they may be. Whether heáisástaging Nikolai Gogol, Alexander Ostrovsky, Anton Chekhov oráaácontemporary writer, Pogrebnichko's actors shuffle stiffly about the stage and interpret their characters with the same deadpan expressions occasionally broken upábyáthe same knowing grins.
There isánoádoubting that Pogrebnichko's style isásteadfastly grounded ináthe director's personal artistic vision. His isáaástyle you will see nowhere else. Understandably heáhas acquired aáloyal following and isárevered byáhis fans asáaámaster. Iáhave seen numerous ofáhis productions that powerfully revealed new aspects ináold works.
AáSchool for Fools isánot among them.
Pogrebnichko has spent most ofáhis 25 years ináMoscow exploring the secrets, details and realities ofáthe Soviet experience. When staging Gogol's The Marriage, for instance, heádressed his actors ináthe rough quilted jackets worn byáprisoners ináthe Soviet Gulag. Itáwas aámarvelous artistic anachronism that sparked new meaning ináthe familiar play.
A similar, Soviet-centric approach toáTatyana Orlova's contemporary play Occupation worked well for another reason. Her play was aámemoir ofálife ináthe Soviet periodáŚ itámet the director's aesthetic onácommon ground.
Sokolov isáanother thing altogether. What struck readers atáthe time his first book appearedáŚ and what still strikes meáasáIáhold itáinámyáhands todayáŚ isáthat there isn't aábreath ofáthe Soviet ináit. This was oneáŚ though only oneáŚ ofáits great triumphs. Written byáaáyoung man living ináthe Soviet Union, the son ofáaáSoviet diplomat, itáwas aábook proclaiming utter and total freedom byáits mere existence. Itárejected the themes, language and images ofáthe real world that existed around the writer.
To myámind, forcing this beautiful, fragile work back into aápreset, Soviet-inspired stylistic isátoádoáitáaádeep disservice.
That said loudly, Iáadmired Yegor Pavlov's performance ofáone-half of the schizophrenic boy atáthe center ofáthe story. IfáIánever fully accepted him asácorresponding toáSokolov's young hero, heádid bring anáadmirable artless simplicity toáPogrebnichko's monotone style.
Also capturing some ofáSokolov's lightness and wonder was Sergei Kaplunov, who plays the central role ofáthe school's beloved teacher ofágeography. The fact that heárecently died unexpectedly and isáonly beginning toáaccept that fact himself does not hinder him oráthe boy from carrying onáaárich relationship.
Designer Nadezhda Bakhvalova attentively filled the stage with images culled from the noveláŚ aárailroad, hospital beds, the model ofáaáskeleton and small bust ofáPushkin.
It isáalways difficult toásee one ofáyour favorite literary works brought toálife onástage oráscreen. Perhaps Iáamábiased and unfair inámyáconclusions. But Iánot only saw nothing new ináthis production, Iásaw nothing corresponding toáthe original work atáall.
John Freedman, 21.11.2012
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