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More people probably know the operas based on the poems and plays of the crucial nineteenth-century Russian writer Alexander Pushkin (1799–1837) than have direct experience of his writing itself. Tchaikovsky’s 1879 opera of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin is still popular, whereas the source material, written in verse, is said to lose something ineffable in translation. Walter W. Arndt’s 1963 rendering of Eugene Onegin pleased many people, but they did not include Vladimir Nabokov, who published his own version of the story, seeking to capture the literal rather than the poetic sense of Pushkin’s material. Pushkin died at the age of 37 after fighting a duel over his wife, Natalya, with a count who had sought her favor, and so the lead-up to the end of his life has dramatic possibilities aplenty. What’s most impressive about Jonathan Leaf’s biographical play Pushkin, running through August 25 at the Sheen Center in downtown Manhattan in a production directed by Christopher McElroen, is that Leaf never chooses the easy way out for himself or for his audience.
This is an ambitious drama in verse, conceived on a large scale, with more than ten characters kept in play and in flux throughout. Leaf re-creates a whole lost Russian society on the stage, without ever making the mistake of trying too hard to underline contemporary resonances. Pushkin takes place in the first half of the nineteenth century in Russia, and the societal structures that dictate the action — as well as the attitudes of the many characters — are very particular to that time, and very closely observed.
From the moment that Ian Lassiter enters the space, he incarnates the Pushkin seen in paintings: He is perfect both visually and emotionally. Pushkin was of mixed race, with an African ancestor on his mother’s side, and racial prejudice against him is expressed openly — most upsettingly, by his wife, Natalya (Jenny Leona), who fairly early in the play makes reference to her husband’s “inferior stock.” She gets a slap in the face from Pushkin as a response, at which point she tells him that his impulsive resort to violence proves his inferiority. Leaf takes pains to show just how Natalya’s ugly prejudice against her husband does its part in ruining both her life and his, providing a wide social perspective and context in which we can understand these people and the reasons why they behave the way they do.
Once Leaf sets his narrative in motion, the action can occasionally get a little dry, but this is more than made up for by the sumptuous period costumes by Elivia Bovenzi — whose attention to detail is perhaps the decisive factor that makes this production so enveloping. The way she dresses Natalya’s sisters, Katarina (Olivia Gilliatt) and Alexandra (Lexi Lapp), instantly reveals their respective characters: The first sister is anxious to follow in Natalya’s footsteps and become a wife, while Alexandra is a bluestocking who has nearly resigned herself to living in her mind only (until she later makes her feelings for Pushkin known, and he responds in kind).
Bovenzi and company go the extra distance here to make us believe that we are in the Russia of this era. There is a scene where Katarina wears long earrings, accompanied by a large pearl number that seems to be hung from her elaborate coiffure. As she walked toward a gentleman admirer at the show I attended, this large pearl earring fell off, and Gilliatt made a beautifully graceful period-specific physical gesture to pick it up off the floor as she made her exit. This was one of those heated theatrical moments where something that was clearly not meant to happen wound up adding texture and mood to the drama. It would not have occurred if both Bovenzi and Gilliatt hadn’t given their full attention to just what it would be like to be a woman in a Russian court in the nineteenth century.
There are no heroes or villains here. In a deft bit of double casting, Tracy Sallows plays both Natalya’s ambitious mother and a serf who is spying on Pushkin and reporting back to Tsar Nicholas I (Gene Gillette). It is a tribute to Sallows’s skill that these women seem at once drastically different on the surface, because of their social standing, and somehow similar at the core, at least when it comes to motherhood and what they will do for their children. Pushkin, for his part, is viewed as a proud and even arrogant man who keeps his emotions close to the vest — no doubt because he has to endure insults about his heritage not only from his wife but also from the tsar, who orders him to wear a servant’s uniform at court and serve drinks during a fancy ball.
At the end of Pushkin, the cast members spread out a large white cloth over the red carpeting of the set, a simple yet potent theatrical device that makes us feel we are in the snowbound landscape where Pushkin will fight his fatal duel. When shots are fired, curtains fall down around the space and we see the manuscript pages of Eugene Onegin on the walls. As Pushkin’s friend and fellow writer Gogol (Kyle Cameron) observes at the end of this play, there are no words finally for a dead writer when only their own words remain.
The uncensored version of Pushkin’s Boris Godunov premiered only in 2007, in English translation at Princeton University — so even though Pushkin takes place nearly two centuries ago, issues of political censorship still aggressively haunt artists in countries that seek to stifle dissent. A modern-day Pushkin wouldn’t be likely to fight a duel, but surely he would be viewed with exactly the same skepticism by Russian authorities, and likely without even Tsar Nicholas’s aesthetic appreciation of Pushkin’s verse. Leaf’s Pushkin is both a highly convincing re-creation of a Russian past in theatrical terms and also a dissection of issues that — though they may have taken on different form over the years — still plague us mightily.