This review was originally published to Broadway World on June 1, 2017
Upon entering the small, second-floor performance space home to Arlekin Players (A Russian theater company based in Needham, MA and run by Artistic Director Igor Golyak), it was evident every traditional American theater standard would be questioned, pulled apart and reassembled in a new fashion. I could sense my underused neurotransmitters beginning to wake up when I was handed an English translation device and then walked through a door marked "enter if you dare." As if that wasn't enough to poke at my senses, upon entering the theater I sat on the outside perimeter of a large black rectangular box with a Post-it Note size viewing hole cut out at eye level. Inside was where the play would live. I noticed a bed with a body on it (dead perhaps?), figures dressed entirely in black aimlessly walking around, and shreds of black paper scattered throughout. What have I gotten myself into here?
Mikhail Bulgakov never finished "Theatrical Novel," his magnum opus about a playwrights backroom negotiations, but Golyak saw the unfinished work's potential and brought it to life on stage in a mysterious and thrilling new production. Now titled as A DEAD MAN'S DIARY: A THEATRICAL NOVEL, we are given the opportunity to experience this philosophical play by considering the turmoil when an artist and their art uncontrollably move further and further away due to commercial and political interests.
A director's core responsibility is to communicate all storytelling elements in a unified process. The process can and should achieve this in both visual and audible approaches. Director Igor Golyak proves it's possible to provide just the right dose of clarity to its audience while still leaving us suspended for the journey. The result allows for the pleasure of understanding the lead character of Sergey Leontyevich Maksudov's obstacles and still wonder how he will overcome them. Golyak's avant-garde style pulls together grotesque exaggerations of businesspeople, white-collar workers, and artists and drops them all in a black void of existence. The set and lighting are marvelously designed with surprising malleability by Nikolay Simonov and Stephen Petrelli.
The success of clarity in Golyak's dark and often grim (yet still funny!) world is an interesting juxtaposition. This contrast is a major contributor to the depth of A DEAD MAN'S DIARY: A THEATRICAL NOVEL. Comprehending scenes of grandiose physical imagery can be an overload on the brain, especially for someone who does not speak Russian. When Golyak goes big on the visuals, he is diligent in remaining honest with the play's emotion. This clarity made the text of the play (subtly translated into English by Yana Minchenko and playing in sync in my ear by Victor Shopov) seem secondary.
Maksudov's journey (teetering on the edge of unraveling composure by David Gamarnik) begins messy and chaotic at the play's start - symbolizing the madness of creativity - and then settles down once his life becomes filled with contract negotiations. (The scene where Maksudov's contract quite literally consumes him is outstanding.) Gamarnik discovers new depths of his character throughout this journey. Supporting Maksudov is an ensemble of dark figures, nameless and shapeless at the start. They evolve in ridiculous ways until each of them becomes a different haunt of Maksudov's life. Behind each turn of Maksudov's story is another figure further detached from reality (or is Maksudov the estranged one?) than the last. Remarkably, these colorful characters all work as one with sharp precision.
The best theatrical experiences are the ones that successfully warp an audience's perception of reality and expand the limitations of its craft. A DEAD MAN'S DIARY: A THEATRICAL NOVEL achieves dramatic heights in shocking and refreshing ways using alienation at first which slowly pulls its audience into the void over the duration of the evening.
I had long thought such experimental work did not exist in the Metro Boston area outside of university black boxes. Which begs the question; should the Dead Man move to Boston next?