Theater archives

In This Context, Cleopatra Herself Might Get Disoriented


Theatre-Atelier’s adaptation of Alexander Pushkin’s unfinished novella Egyptian Nights, an even more problematic work for stage purposes than War and Peace (see above), boasted a running time 95 minutes shorter than its counterpart, but it was staged by artistic director Pyotr Fomenko with a leaden pace and a heavy-handed literalism that made it seem at least seven hours longer than Tolstoy’s sprightly epic. Granted, Pushkin’s story, laden with Romantic-era orientalist attitude, would seem fairly thin in any stage version under today’s harsh light: It shows some St. Petersburg culture vultures going all atwitter over a re-enactment of the hoary tale about Cleopatra making her lovers pay with their lives for a night’s bliss with her.

Fomenko surrounded this tiny tripartite anecdote with a lot of fussing, posturing, and repetition, including passages of third-person narration sung to excerpts from Rossini, Paganini, and other composers of Pushkin’s era, plus intrusions from a 1916 response to Pushkin’s work by the Russian poet Bryusov.

There was much theatrical fiddle-faddle, including acrobatic shenanigans in the aisles, but virtually zero dramatic excitement, though Fomenko’s actors again proved themselves able and well-trained, reaffirming the strong impression they had made in War and Peace. Polina Koutiepova was a fetchingly pouty Cleopatra—one would like to see her play Salomé—and Ilya Lyubimov an elegantly been-there-done-that aesthete. Even the latter’s blatant scene-stealing, in this tepid event, came as a welcome relief.