NABOKV-L post 0002230, Tue, 8 Jul 1997 20:06:19 -0700

Moscow play: Laughter in the Dark - review (fwd)
Subject: Laughter in the Dark - review

From: Philip Hammond <>

I received this on my Russian Theater listserv and thought I'd share it
with Nabokv-L.


Pre-publication version of a review of "Laughter in the Dark" at the Sfera
Theater and of the "Marquee" column to be published in the Moscow Times
July 10, 1997. Any and all quotations of, or references to, these articles
must cite John Freedman and the Moscow Times.

) 1997 John Freedman
) 1997 The Moscow Times

The Sfera Theater is a house with its own distinct personality.

It is the only theater-in-the-round in Moscow. The shows in its repertoire
are largely based on dramatizations of prose, some are foreign works, many
are Russian novels from the first half of the century. The performing style
at the Sfera is fast and loose, drawing a good deal of its atmosphere from
the music hall. Not coincidentally, most of its shows make generous use of
song and dance.

All of this bears the mark of Yekaterina Yelanskaya, who founded the Sfera
some 15 years ago. You feel the presence of a strong leader the instant you
enter the door at the Sfera. The employees are polite and helpful; the
foyer is neat and clean; the summery buffet is tastefully decorated and the
pianist playing piano-bar versions of Beatles tunes has his chops down.

In the hall the seating arrangement is spacious and comfortable. Pieces of
the set are scattered among the five or six rows of seats surrounding a
small, elevated, circular platform in the middle, and it is obvious from
the start that the action will also unfold among and behind the spectators.

That is also true of Yelanskaya's production of "Laughter in the Dark,"
which opened over the weekend. (It is a dramatization of Vladimir Nabokov's
early novel, "Camera Obscura," using the title by which it is known in the
United States.) Actors make their entrances and exits by way of four doors
located in the back walls, and many of the scenes are playedout at tables
or on a sofa placed where the third row of seats once was. Rising above the
audience at one end is a bridge-like platform where several more scenes

"Laughter in the Dark" is the third Nabokov novel in repertory at the
Sfera, joining "King, Queen, Knave" and the notorious Edward Albee
dramatization of "Lolita" which opened in the spring.

The convoluted plot of Nabokov's fifth novel, involving a fifteen-year-old
girl, Magda Peters (Tatyana Filatova), who falls in love with the
unscrupulous artist Robert Horn (Vyacheslav Nikolayev) but ends up living
with the married Bruno Kretchmar (Alexei Novitsky), is exhibited with
surprising clarity. That makes for this show's biggest strength -- the ease
with which you follow the goings-on.

Bruno's susceptibility to sexual adventure is tipped off immediately as he
lies down to sleep with his primly proper wife (Lyubov Sergeyeva) and a
trio of scantily-attired Graces joins him for a dreamland ***menage a
quatre.*** Then we cut to the arrogant, carefree Robert who frankly calls
himself a charlatan and describes the creation which made his fame and
fortune -- a teddy-bear figure named Chippy (played as an often menacing,
life-size doll by Yelena Kishchik). When Robert buys the poverty-stricken
Magda for a night of wild sex, the three key characters of the novel have
been put in place.

If you accept the claims of Nabokov's apologists, which I do here for
argument's sake, the novelist was a master stylist who delighted in
undercutting the sentimental expectations of his readers.

In this production of "Laughter," that is most evident in the character of
Robert. If we expect him to be an exalted type because of his profession,
we are mistaken. He is crass, unscrupulous and cruel. He uses Magda and
abandons her, and when she has become more or less settled with the
starry-eyed Bruno, Robert comes back to shatter that silly man's fragile

Similarly, Magda is no poor waif. She is an ex-whore who will stop at
nothing to get a piece of Bruno's wealth and social standing. Bruno himself
proves to be a sentimental oaf who fails to see Robert's claims to be gay
are merely a smokescreen enabling him to carry on with Magda.

But if this makes for intriguing reading, it is less interesting as
theater. Unlike Nabokov, Yelanskaya does not ask a whole lot of her
audience. In fact, she doesn't even leave much for us to infer or imagine.
The actors weep, wail and shout. The heavy drum and bass beat music pounds.
Yelanskaya is especially fond of strobe light shows during the seemingly
countless bump-and-grind sex dances staged by Sergei Vinogradov.

A few rare moments of poise are provided by a handful of recordings by the
great jazz singer Nina Simone. But the unmistakable authenticity of
Simone's soulful, gravelly voice actually works against the show: By
comparison, everything else looks and sounds even more contrived.

Yelanskaya, however, is less concerned with depth than appearances. In that
sense, "Laughter in the Dark" may achieve what she was after. It is a
relatively lively piece of literary narration spiced with music, dance,
flesh and scandalous behavior.

***"Laughter in the Dark" (Smekh vo mrake) plays July 12, 13, 15, 16 and 17
at 7 p.m. at the Sfera Theater, 3 Karetny Ryad (at the back of the
Hermitage Garden). Tel. 299-9645. Running time: 3 hours, 30 mins.***