In the shell of a building, mediocrity hatched. The production of Mark Jackson’s “Death of Meyerhold” opened The Studio Theatre’s new experimental venue - a hollowed-out, industrial-feeling attic in its theater complex. The Theatre calls it Stage Four, a “flexible, raw theatre space.”
It debuted the edgy stage with a historical piece about one of the edgiest figures in modern theater. Vsevolod Meyerhold bursts the molds of realism as his nation, Mother Russia, forever revolutionized itself (and the world) with Communism.
The play documents the astounding heights and falls of creating something new. It compares the innovation of theater forms and governments with a metaphorical twist. Beautiful, audacious actresses invoke love stories and jealousy into Meyerhold’s struggle with personal and national pride. The three-hour play is rounded off with executions, forced confessions, pleas to Stalin and high-strung opera composers.
The production quality is excellent. However, the most basic component of theater, acting, is almost obnoxiously executed. Meyerhold pioneers a new acting technique, and the great conceptual achievement of “Death of Meyerhold” was to run the play in the same out-there model of the great theater director. The Studio Theatre actors attempt the physical form of acting called biomechanics, but it ends up just feeling like a melodramatic show tune.
However, to the production’s credit, this is everyone and not all of the time. Meyerhold’s (Joel Reuben Ganz) performance is powerful with a constant sense of barely constrained energy and a master’s grip in voice inflection. Playing opposite him, Zinaida Raikh (Katya Falikova) is also quite excellent with expressive facial features that always draw the audience’s eyes - even when she is just performing as an ensemble member.
Though the set is minimal, the theater is transformed by the music to stunning bourgeois decadence, as the Soviet characters would say.
Dramatic classical works by Chopin, Puccini and Shostakovich soar in the concrete space. The music (by Jake Rodriguez) is so excellent one almost expects there to be a “Death of Meyerhold” soundtrack for sale in the lobby after the show.
It would be quite a long wait to buy that CD, because the play stretches through two intermissions into the almost-too-long range. The play is three hours, and one has to justify three hours to the audience. There were subplots that could have been cut, like Meyerhold’s production of the controversial play “Mystery-Bouffe.”
Also, the opening sequence is atrocious and awkward. A mock-interview opens the show that is obviously scripted and falls flat as it tries to explain the levels of meaning in the show. If one has to explain why the audience should be watching something, the script should be abandoned. But that was just the thing - the play draws its own historical context and does not need the heavy-handed explanation of the introduction. It assumes the audience knows nothing of Russian history, or is incapable of reading a program where this information could have been printed.
The idea of a world in transition and rebelling against old structures resonates for today’s young people. This generation only knows the Cold War through the History Channel, but American foreign policy is slipping into another time where the “Us” versus “Them” mentality dominates in a war with a subversive enemy. “Death of Meyerhold” shows such a struggle from the non-American perspective, communicating the multi-layered nature of any society - even one composed of “evil-doers.”
Most people have had a moment where the traditional way of doing things has oppressed personal creativity. A time when they wanted to grind an overly complex paper assignment into a shredder and write on the issue how they wanted to. Meyerhold screams his frustration at the establishment on behalf of all of these moments.
Theater students, aspiring actors and directors would really enjoy this “Death of Meyerhold,” as it shows the conflicts modern stage techniques were born from. The Drama 100-G students should pour out of their seats and flock to the theater.
Performances are Wednesday-Saturday at 8:30 p.m. and Sundays at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $25. For more information, call (202) 588-5262 or http://www.studiotheatre.org.