PRINCETON - Academia is the best home for the impossible. Such was the task at hand for the provocative, extravagant Princeton University-produced
- not the famous opera, but the Alexander Pushkin play as it might have been rendered by legendary director Vsevolod Meyerhold with music by Sergei Prokofiev.
The project was being rehearsed and the composer completed 55 minutes of music in 1936 - the year Joseph Stalin squashed Shostakovich's hit opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, in a single stroke. Meyerhold canceled his project, whose Macbeth-like parable of changing dictators would have proved a magnet for trouble.
It lay dormant until Thursday at the Berlind Theatre here (and closed Saturday), in a pungent, streamlined translation by Antony Wood and an intelligent student production directed by Tim Vasen with Prokofiev's music, Meyerhold's notes, and good instincts about how this kind of theater operated. With 36 characters, and a vocal ensemble, chamber orchestra and dancers needed to do it right, the chances of a U.S. professional production are slim.
Entertainment isn't on the agenda here, which means the production offers you as much as the foreknowledge you bring to it. My longtime fascination with epic theater yielded valuable associations I'll digest for months: Among many things, Meyerhold fathered the iconographic poses of director Robert Wilson as well as the makeshift poetic suggestion exemplified by Théâtre de Complicité.
Designs supervised by Jesse Reiser are spare and nonrepresentational, using atmospheric scrims and slide projections plus dozens of vertically hung bungee cords that are rigid enough to maintain clean visual lines but are effectively reconfigured to suggest sumptuous curtains in one scene, a birch forest in another. Rightly, the acting was stylized. In Meyerhold's theater, characterizations evolve from an emblematic physical gesture, similar to early Soviet poster art, though only Sam Zetumer (as the scheming Shuisky) made that work.
It was a long three hours, and the production's revelations were balanced by inadequacies. But the Act II encounter between Dmitri the Pretender and the Polish noblewoman Maryna (portrayed with steely originality by Lily Cowles) was worth the trip: Cards are played, laid on the table, then played again with varying levels of domination, submission, false candor and empty bravado.
And the music? It's minor Prokofiev, but unlike anything in his output. From the pared-down a cappella songs to full-orchestra dance interludes, his harmonic fingerprints are clear, the score's closest cousin being Lieutenant Kijé minus the fun. The story's seaminess was conveyed with melodies that don't soar and accents that are particularly off kilter. A small but serious effort, then, without which one's view of Prokofiev isn't quite complete.