THE time: July 1980. The place: Moscow, on the eve of the Olympic Games. In an effort to cleanse the city's streets for foreign consumption, a policeman rounds up local prostitutes, and puts them in the dilapidated dormitory of a mental asylum for the duration of the festivities. Each has her own story. One woman fills her days with endless bottles of cheap vodka; she talks nonsense and ``recalls'' a mother who only exists in her imagination. Another, a mere teenager, was abandoned by her family after she became pregnant. Still another indulges in romantic fantasies about her past, bizarrely imagining herself a glamorous trapeze artist.
Life for these girls is bleak. It's clear that they have no hope for a better future.
As the Olympic Torch is carried by a runner near their dormitory, the girls scramble onto the roof, overwhelming the protestations of their warder, for a glimpse of an event to which the whole world is invited - except themselves. But the thrill is fleeting. Climbing down and walking back to their place of exile, they are physically spent, and utterly desolate once more.
Such is the story line of a startling new play by Soviet playwright Alexander Galin. Performed by the Maly Theater of Leningrad and directed by the company's controversial artistic chief, Lev Dodin, ``Stars in the Morning Sky'' is making its debut in the West. The first stop was for performances to sold-out audiences at Glasgow's Mayfest. The company then moved to London's Riverside Theater for a two-week run that was followed by a short stint in Toronto. It moves next to New York (where a different, also controversial work, ``Brothers and Sisters,'' will be performed) and Paris.
``It was not that simple to come to the West with this play,'' observes Dodin in an interview at the Riverside. ``But then,'' he chuckles, ``it did prove possible.''
We are speaking through an interpreter, yet the director's strong character transcends language barriers: A frank, quick-witted man, Dodin exudes enthusiasm, good humor, and crackling intelligence. He's clearly pleased that his company's work is at last being viewed by Western eyes - particularly this production which, he says, ``would not have been possible to mount in the Soviet Union a few years ago, to say nothing of bringing it to the West.''
Dodin's career hasn't been easy. For a long time the plays he tried to stage were banned. Nor could he get a job. ``He's been out in the wilderness for some years,'' explains Michael Glenny, the British Sovietologist who translated the play into English. ``But now he's back with a vengeance.''
Dodin was appointed director of the Maly Theater of Leningrad in 1983. Today every show he puts on is sold out in advance.
``Box office success doesn't necessarily mean genuine sucess,'' notes Dodin. ``But I would like to believe that our success is due to the seriousness of our art and the importance of art in general.''
Soviet theatergoers have been traveling great distances, in some cases hundreds of miles, just to see ``Stars in the Morning Sky.'' Why?
``This is the most controversial and, for the Soviet Union, the most daring and advanced play ever to be publicly staged in that country,'' observes Glenny. ``It moves into areas where Soviet theater ... hasn't been allowed to go before.''
Indeed, the play contains both nudity and sexually explicit scenes. While these are tame by Western standards, they break new ground for the Soviet stage.
``It's not by chance that we have used nudity,'' Dodin says. ``This nudity is used with full awareness of what we are doing. ... I genuinely feel that it's appropriate because in speaking about these fallen creatures - these fallen women who sell their bodies - we remind the audience of the eternal beauty of the body and of the connection these women have with all people throughout the ages. We want to remind [the audience] about the exquisiteness and the sanctity of something these women have themselves trampled on.''
The main point, says the director, is that the play is not about prostitutes. Rather, as Dodin puts it, it's an expos'e of a stratum of Soviet society that has never been talked of openly. The play depicts these unfortunates not as alien caricatures, but as human beings.
The message is that however low a person falls, something human still remains inside. ``This play is about everyone among us who may one day find him or herself on the fringes of life,'' says Dodin. ``It is about a society that ought to have the courage to uncover its ailments, its diseases, and be able to cure them; the ultimate theme is that of cruelty and mercy.''
Translator Glenny believes the play also uses prostitution as a metaphor for Soviet society in general: Most Soviet citizens, in order to survive, have been obliged in one way or another to prostitute themselves, says Glenny. This is seen, he says, ``in the case of ideologists [who are] pretending to believe in Soviet ideology.'' It's also seen in ordinary Soviet people ``who've been completely baffled or entangled by the network of rules and regulations of Soviet life.'' The latter, he says, ``have had to compromise with [that network] or tell lies in order to simply survive.''
Dodin smiles amiably when this slant is put to him. ``Art gives an opportunity to interpret on a broad scale,'' he says. ``It's up to you to decide. ... But we want to speak about the danger that besets any man in certain circumstances - not only in our society but in the world at large.''
The play's spiritual undercurrent is equally forthright. A young man, a mental patient who forms an attachment with one of the girls, wears a crucifix. Another character, the alcoholic woman, lashes out in a sobbing tirade when someone speculates that Christ may have been the bastard son of a prostitute; the woman's spiritual beliefs are all she has to sustain her.
Dodin believes that spiritual awareness is gaining ground today within Soviet artistic circles. ``The poetry, imagery and ethics of the Bible are part of world culture, and no society is able to ignore them. In the face of the many problems that are before us in our society, an increasing number of writers are trying to assess these problems from the vantage point of age-old biblical concepts. ... It must be remembered that the greatest and most gifted people have always felt this relevance. An artist cannot work, cannot live, cannot exist if he is cut off from these eternal, humanistic ideas; indeed, an attempt to ignore them would be the death of art.''
When a Soviet official saw ``Stars in the Morning Sky,'' he found that he couldn't sleep for three nights, so disturbed was he at what the play highlighted about Soviet society. The official approached Dodin, suggesting that the end might be better if it were less harsh.
``I told him that if we had made the end softer,'' says Dodin, ``then he would have slept very well - and the main point of theater is to wake people up.''