Leningrad's Maly Theater Dazzles and Exhausts Audiences With a 6-Hour Epic

BROTHERS AND SISTERS A play in two parts, adapted from the novels of Fyodor Abramov. Presented by the Maly Dramatic Theater of Leningrad at the Old Globe Theatre, through Nov. 19. `BROTHERS AND SISTERS,'' the sprawling six-hour theater epic that's the centerpiece for a 21-day Soviet Arts Festival under way here, is a work that raises profound questions: ``Can an individual influence a nation's history?'' ``What is the boundary between duty and individual judgment?'' ``Where does one draw the line between the right to personal happiness and responsibility to the greater good?''

The production by the visiting Maly Dramatic Theater of Leningrad, receiving its American premi`ere here, has won acclaim at home and abroad for its bold, detailed picture of the inhabitants of Pekashino, a village in northern Russia, in the cataclysmic years following World War II. The drama exhaustively chronicles famine and destitution as it traces the lives of villagers in the grip of the war's aftermath.

The story is taken from a series of four novels by Fyodor Abramov, whose aim was to hold up the ``naked, terrifying, cruel and splendid truth'' about a period portrayed in Stalinist propaganda as a time of happy abundance and prosperity. Abramov was also intent on exploring the power of conscience and the values of self-sacrifice and hard work.

If all this sounds like a fairly heady night at the theater, it is. And one must also negotiate the hurdle of a Russian-language performance translated into rather expressionless English through headphones. Some local critics have complained that the result is less than compelling. But audiences have invariably given the cast foot-stomping ovations: For those with perseverance, there's an undeniable power to history portrayed in a new light.

Besides the Maly production, the festivities include a large exhibition of Faberg'e bejeweled eggs; the Russian opera ``Boris Godunov''; the Georgian State Marionette Theater; the Georgian Singing and Dancing Ensemble; folk and photographic exhibitions; and a festival of Georgian films.

``Brothers and Sisters,'' however, is the most politically attuned entry. The action begins in 1945, with the end of the ``Great Patriotic War,'' and moves through the next five years in the lives of villagers who had been promised the ``good life'' in return for their wartime sacrifice. The view of communism is unflattering, to say the least. The state's increasing demands upon the commune become so encompassing that the villagers are forced to eat bread made of moss and sawdust; everything else they raise goes to the state.

The Maly troupe's 70 actors provide a spectacle of energy, color, authentic costumes, and polished choreography. Ensemble-acting always takes precedence over any single character. The centerpiece of the stage design is a log platform, which serves alternately as wall, floor, ceiling, barrier, even movie screen. A scene at the opening of Part 2 might be a metaphor for the whole play: A propaganda film fills a screen with happy, singing farmers reaping a bountiful harvest. As the movie continues, however, the screen is lifted to reveal a disconcerting montage of worn faces staring into space.

THE play brims with subplots, interludes, dream sequences, digressions, and flashbacks as it follows villagers through rites of passage, courtship, marriage, family responsibilities. The emphasis is on negative circumstances being overcome by the sheer resiliency of the human spirit.

Although one may be tempted to see ``Brothers and Sisters'' as a fruit of glasnost, its history predates the Gorbachev era. Author Abramov published an article in 1953, the year Stalin died, in which he attacked books praising the USSR's transition from ``partial success to full prosperity.'' Writing from an inner need to express ``images of actual, living reality,'' Abramov published ``Brothers and Sisters'' as a novel in 1958 and followed it with three more books during the next 20 years.

The Maly Theater began work on the project in 1983 with the cooperation of Abramov, but the author died shortly thereafter. Proceeding in that spirit of collaboration, director Lev Dodin took the company for three months to the remote northern village of Verkola, Abramov's birthplace. The actors lived in peasant huts and worked alongside villagers, learning stories and songs. The play was first produced in Leningrad in 1985.

The current production offers highly colorful but essentially one-dimensional theater. Dodin and company are so intent on educating their audience that the production borders on agitprop, with a single ferocious level of intensity throughout. For those with endurance, however, the experience is ultimately rewarding.

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