The memoirs of Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva recount the strange episode of Cherubina de Gabriak. In 1909, poems on scented paper arrived at the offices of the literary journal Apollon. These overheated lyrics"Within me are the temptations of sin . . . /Flesh of Christ, sanctify me!"were ostensibly penned by Cherubina, a mysterious and beautiful young woman. Editors hastened to publish her work and to send her love letters. But she did not exist: In fact, a plain, crippled schoolteacher named Elizaveta Dmitrieva was the author, and one of Apollon's own staffers, Max Voloshin, had colluded in the hoax. As Tsvetaeva wrote, Voloshin saw in Dmitrieva "a cruel gift, not modest, not schoolish, that . . . did not limp."
Love, intrigue, secrets, false identities, even a duelthe tale of Cherubina is nothing if not dramatic. One understands immediately what attracted playwright Paul Cohen to the material, and yet he has softened and simplified the story in his Cherubina, bleaching it of much of its nuance and oddity. Cohen has tidied it into a relatively simple love triangle featuring Voloshin, Dmitrieva, and Nikolai Gumilyov, a besotted poet and editor. Cohen sketches these people in only the broadest strokes, leaving actors Teddy Bergman, Jimmy Owens, and Amanda Fulks (who seems rather too pretty for the role of Dmitrieva) to render them as whole charactersa feat they and director Alexis Poledouris only sometimes manage. But perhaps we shouldn't scold Cohen too much. As Cherubina threatens in one of her poems, "My gloom will not be illuminated."
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