In October 1973, Arena Stage in Washington took its productions of “Inherit the Wind” and “Our Town” to Moscow and Leningrad for “the first American theatrical performances on the Soviet stage in memory,” according to The New York Times.
A teenager named Dmitry Krymov was so bowled over by “Our Town” that he returned the next day. He grew up to become one of the world’s finest theatermakers, and “Our Town” plays a pivotal role in his wonderfully evocative recent memory play, “We Are All Here,” which tracks Krymov’s relationship with Grover’s Corners over the course of his life, and peaks in an emotional gut punch doubling as a visual masterstroke, with the cast lined up on a slowly rising bridge.
The good news is that I was able to take in Krymov’s show earlier this month. The less-good news is that I saw it online.
And that, in a nutshell, is what the past year has been for fans of border- and boundary-crossing theater: increased access, curtailed experience.
Audiences in New York (and other cities that regularly host international companies) have long been able to discover theatrical ideas, techniques and aesthetics that can be radically different from the ones we encounter in the United States.
Indeed, American theatergoers can be taken aback by another culture’s conception of the art form. Very roughly, if the playwright, dead or alive, rules in the United States, in Europe it’s the director who is the focus.
But as Krymov learned in 1973, opening one’s mind to different possibilities is also incredibly exciting.
The main problem is that travel was even harder this past year than it was between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1970s. And sharing a physical space has always been a key to the more adventurous experiences, the ones that make us question our artistic assumptions: The impact of a show by Italy’s Romeo Castellucci, France’s Ariane Mnouchkine or Poland’s Krystian Lupa can only be fully felt in real life.
When you are in the room, you can see how Mnouchkine reconfigures the very idea of the theatrical space by placing movable sets on casters or having the actors get ready for a performance in full view of the audience.
In the room, Scott Gibbons’s tectonic soundscapes, which are an integral part of Castellucci productions, feel as if they are pressing on your chest. Audiences entering “The Four Seasons Restaurant” at Philadelphia’s FringeArts festival, in 2014, were handed earplugs, and no, raising the volume on headphones at home just isn’t the same (you can try with another Castellucci show, “Inferno,” available in full on Vimeo).
In the room, you can be awed by the supersize scope and the way live and videotaped perspectives intermingle in Ivo van Hove’s “The Damned.”
And in the room, you can thrill to an audience’s response to the moment. It’s possibly even more exciting when you’re in the enthusiastic minority in a sea of haters, “Rite of Spring”-style: I can still hear the slaps of seats springing back up as enraged patrons left in the middle of Jan Lauwers’s berserk “King Lear” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and that was 20 years ago.
But just like that, the pandemic closed borders: we will have to do without outré tableaus from visiting companies for the foreseeable future. The sudden disappearance of international theatrical touring did not make headlines in America last year: Our shellshocked stages went into survival mode, and a much needed discussion of racism in theater took precedence.
Obviously I am not begrudging any of that — the reckoning was overdue — but I couldn’t deny the dull ache I felt for what was missing.
It was somewhat alleviated, at least, when we switched from glaring at supertitles to glaring at subtitles, as the digital floodgates opened and theaters all over the world began streaming both shows in their repertoires and new projects.
Krymov’s “We Are All Here,” for example, was just one of 15 subtitled captures I binged over five days of watching this year’s Golden Mask Festival. These were part of the Moscow-based festival’s showcase section, called Russian Case, which offers works available for tour bookings.
Some of them were entrancing even on a screen, like Mihhail Plutahhin’s hypnotic “The Observers,” which consisted of handlers wordlessly moving objects rescued from forced-labor camps this way and that on a table.
Yury Butusov’s staging of the Florian Zeller drama “The Son” was so bizarre that it was compelling on its own terms — the actors’ histrionic line readings were refreshingly free of any attempt at psychologizing. The popular writer Vladimir Sorokin’s “Spin” was staged by Yury Kvyatkovsky in a glass house, where we spied a rich family reveling in a decadent boozy brunch via surveillance cameras.
Not everything worked, especially the shows that illustrated Regietheater (or director’s theater) run amok, like the incomprehensible commedia dell’arte-influenced production “Pinocchio. Theater.”
“Investigation of Horror,” which recreated a soiree of 1930s avant-garde philosophers, complete with real-time potato-peeling and intense debates, looked at times like a “Saturday Night Live” parody. After I admitted, in a postfestival debrief on Zoom, to having been bewildered by a modern-dress adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s “The Idiot,” another viewer reassured me by saying, “I’m Russian, I read the book, and I had no idea what was going on.”
None of the Russian Case shows I watched were of the naturalistic bent most common in the United States. I never caught a glimpse of characters desultorily chit-chatting on a couch plopped center stage.
Come to think of it, there was not much desultory chitchat at all.
In her introductory note to “Investigation of Horror,” the Russian Case curator Marina Davydova wrote: “Watching relationships between characters is getting boring — it is much more interesting to observe ideas fleshing out.”
This applied even to the most traditional productions, which always had a twist, like “The Son” and its outré Expressionism, or the Latvian director Alvis Hermanis’s brilliant bioplay “Gorbachev” having the virtuosic Yevgeny Mironov in the title role as Mikhail Gorbachev and Chulpan Khamatova as his wife, Raisa, change costumes and wigs in full view as their characters age over the course of the show.
And Russian Case was just the apex of a year in which I gorged on non-English-speaking theater.
It all started last spring, when major companies scrambled to put catalog productions online as soon as their venues shut down — many of them stuck to traditional curtain times and eschewed on-demand, which meant appointment matinees for American viewers.
Suddenly, it became easier to see work by directors we have come to know over the years. Berlin’s Schaubühne dug into its archive for full-length shows, including a healthy selection from the artistic director Thomas Ostermeier — a treat for those of us who have loyally trekked to St. Ann’s Warehouse and the Brooklyn Academy of Music for his live productions. As of this writing, the prestigious Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe in Paris was still streaming a subtitled capture of a contemporary take on Molière’s “The School for Wives.”
The most ambitious institution may well have been the Comédie-Française, also in Paris, which started by offering a slew of weekly archival captures (without subtitles) in the spring of 2020. I was finally able to see the 1974 production of Jean Giraudoux’s “Ondine” that starred a teenage Isabelle Adjani and has attracted a cult following; I laughed alone in front of my computer watching a zippy staging of the Feydeau farce “Le Système Ribadier.”
The Comédie-Française’s virtual programming has evolved over the past year as regulations changed, and this 341-year-old grande dame has exhibited enviable verve. When in-person rehearsals were authorized again, the company put its troupe to great use with new initiatives like the table read series “Théâtre à la Table,” which has become increasingly sophisticated (and will remain on YouTube, unlike the full captures).
Those familiar with “The Seagull” could be tempted by the Comédie-Française’s dynamic reading, led by Guillaume Gallienne as Trigorin and Elsa Lepoivre as Arkadina (they also played the terrible lovers Friedrich and Sophie in “The Damned” at the Park Avenue Armory).
Choices of source material show inventiveness, too, as with a fantastic re-enactment of Delphine Seyrig’s “Sois Belle et Tais Toi” (“Be Pretty and Shut Up”), a prescient feminist documentary from 1981 in which actresses including Ellen Burstyn, Maria Schneider and Jane Fonda talked about sexism in the film industry.
Other companies have taken to appointment, blink-and-you-miss-it livestreaming, most notably Internationaal Theater Amsterdam — the company led by van Hove, whose staging of “The Things That Pass” you can catch on April 25.
Not long before my Russian immersion, I was on the edge of my, er, couch during the British director Robert Icke’s take on “Oedipus” for the Amsterdam theater. Even though there was no doubt as to the outcome, the modern-dress production had the intensity of a thriller and I caught myself yelping “no no no no no” out loud as the characters headed toward their fate like asteroids pulled into a black hole by an irresistible gravitational force.
There have even been actual online festivals such as “Stories From Europe,” which presented subtitled captures from members of the theater network mitos21. For a few days in January, we could pretend we were at the Berliner Ensemble, Moscow’s Theater of Nations or the Teatro Stabile Torino. In dark wintertime, that escape felt precious, a window onto a world of possibilities rather than restrictions.
In an article for The Times recounting that trip to the Soviet Union in 1973, the Arena Stage associate director Alan Schneider quoted an account in the Literaturnaya Gazeta newspaper. “Truly,” it said, “the exchange of theater experience, of theater groups, is one of the finest proofs of the willingness of peoples to live in peace, to seek mutual understanding.”
If that understanding must happen online for now, so be it. The glass, at least, is half full.