The Russian playwright Alexander Ostrovsky (1823-1886) loved actors, who figure as characters in any number of his plays. A sort of businessman scribbler from the upper middle class (his father was a wealthy lawyer), he was uniquely positioned to pour into his plays the whole fluctuating life of St. Petersburg’s rising bourgeoisie during the era of chaotic change that has the freeing of Russia’s serfs (1861) as its midpoint. Theater junkie that he was, however, Ostrovsky couldn’t resist embodying the life around him in scripts tailored to the stagiest stage conventions of his time. Actor-friendly and garlanded with portraits of actor types, his writing is also full of actorish excesses, rants and repetitions and sidetracks that clutter the drama, weakening its focus and diluting its power. Though his best scenes infallibly grip you (Chekhov learned a good deal from his work), his writing too often resembles vodka-fueled Russian conversation, its meanderings always ready to sink into sentimentality or flare up into pointless argument. Unsurprisingly, he’s less well known in the West than any other major Russian playwright.
Ostrovsky wrote over 50 plays, in every genre from fairy tales to historical epics. The tragicomedy that the English translation archly calls Innocent as Charged—The Guilty Innocent would be clearer—is almost unknown outside Russia. Even after granting all its good points, you can see why. It’s an unsavory mélange of Oedipus Rex and Noises Off, in which a shabby-genteel orphan girl is seduced by an up-and-coming young man, bears him a child, and is then jilted when he marries one of her wealthier girlfriends—just as the baby falls sick. End Act I. During 17 years’ worth of intermission, the young man, anxious to cover his tracks, convinces our heroine that the child has died. She goes away to become a famous actress, and the play’s three remaining acts find her confronting at last, in her new identity, the town where her first-act traumas occurred. Naturally, her seducer is now an influential and pompous old shit, and a widower who still loves her. Just as naturally, neither of them realizes that their abandoned son is also now back in town, an unstable but gifted barnstormer with the local stock company. (Apparently all 19th-century Russians who suffered any kind of misfortune were encouraged to go on the stage.) Like every man in town, the young actor is fascinated by the touring superstar. But not knowing about his father’s villainy, he thinks his mother deserted him, so that when he finally learns who she is, we get a good dose of recrimination before the tearful reunion. As if this Russified precursor of Stella Dallas weren’t enough, we get a ramshackle subplot, centering on an untalented local actress whose roles, along with her wealthy lover, have been preempted by the visiting diva.
The bare summary makes Ostrovsky seem worse than he proves in practice. For all his overdoing, at his best he is both sharp and poignant, with a crisp sense of social circumstance and a cannily broad-minded understanding of psychology. The best scene of Innocent as Charged, the touring star’s climactic confrontation with her now aged betrayer, would, if played with the right blend of gravity and fierceness, enhance the reputation of any playwright. You forget the surrounding wash of sentiment and false starts: Here there’s only a man, a woman, and a bare set of facts that they have equal but opposite difficulty confronting. Played at less than full strength, though, Ostrovsky is not one of those sublime writers who can rescue actors and directors from their own limitations—as the Vakhtangov Theatre’s visit regrettably proved.
Behind Petr Fomenko’s production lay the core of a good, or at any rate a viable, notion: that the best path to the play was through an awareness of its age, that its inner validity was best approached by pushing hard at the stagy conventions of the era in which it was written. Fomenko set up the prologue-like first act, cast with players roughly the same age as the characters, like a “front scene” played on the narrow apron of a small provincial theater, with the audience crammed onto backless benches like groundlings in such a theater’s pit. The action was carried on in elaborately choreographed gestures; the betrayed heroine, retreating upstage, actually managed to slam the gauze curtains in her seducer’s face. Though the seating was uncomfortable, the performance—much of it accompanied by turn-of-the-century operatic favorites on a windup gramophone—was lively enough to make you look forward to the remainder.
The main body of the play, however, was played in a long, rectangular space, with audience on three sides—the shape that makes Circle in the Square such a misery for theatergoers. Fomenko treated it as a “real” but not very real room, furnished with that theater-in-the-round mainstay, a circular pouf, which made all the action seem to transpire in a seedy hotel lobby. Here Fomenko assembled his cast from the oldest of the Vakhtangov company’s old stagers, some of them gray eminences whom the emigré audience greeted with loud applause, but all, with the exception of the wayward son and a few servants, more than a decade too old for their roles—another habit of the old stock-company days. Given that only 17 years elapse between Acts I and II, the heroine could easily be under 40 on her return. Yulia Borisova, who played her, joined the Vakhtangov company 53 years ago.
Not that I mean to be invidious about Borisova, who did her work with care and dignity; she shared acting honors, in the evening’s final two-thirds, with Mikhail Uliyanov, the company’s artistic director, who played the low comedian Shmaga with an intriguingly dry mix of clowning and acerbic self-irony. The simple truth is that Fomenko’s conception would have served the play very well if he had had the imagination, his actors the taste and integrity, to support it. That the bulk of the event had no style, no fire, and no grace wasn’t the fault of the company’s age but of its seeming disconnection from the goings-on. Apart from those I’ve singled out, and the vivid but random histrionics of Evgeni Kniazev as the wayward son, the performance merely plodded along. Instead of buoying up the staginess, the cast took it on as a kind of Pirandello-tinged imitative fallacy: a boring provincial actress, in the role of a boring provincial actress, mimicking a boring provincial actress. As Vakhtangov’s great American contemporary Arthur Hopkins once wrote, “When an actor believes himself to be on thin ice, he invariably steps down harder.” Our guests from Moscow, who know all about snow and ice, will surely understand. One wants to be sympathetic: Life has been especially rough on them these past few decades. But other visiting troupes from Russia have shown us that directing and acting have not been trampled underfoot in the country’s economic chaos. And if a sense of Ostrovsky’s values could survive, as it did, the horrors of the Soviet era, it ought to be flourishing now, when the upheavals in Russian life are so much like those he lived through.