Soviet Humor in the Age Of Glasnost Isn't Quite `Saturday Night Live'

NOW that Americans are no longer so worried about the Soviets bombing the US, the crucial question is: Can they make us laugh? Sometimes. But each needs to learn more about the other for the humor really to work. A recent US visit by a 12-member Soviet comedy troupe from the GITIS Institute in Moscow showed that political humor is iffy, but good schtick is timeless.

The group is part of the variety-arts wing of GITIS, the national theater training program for actors, where Stanislavski once taught. Ron Jenkins, professor of performing arts at Boston's Emerson College and artistic director of the Charlestown Working Theater, toured the USSR collecting material that would offer, as he put it, ``a window into the thoughts and aspirations of the people of the Soviet Union in a time of transition.'' The GITIS group performed the material he found.

``We could have brought back another revival of Chekhov,'' said Mr. Jenkins, ``but we wanted people to see what Soviet performers are doing now.''

Their trip started off like an old joke: Fortunately, the group got permission to come. Unfortunately, when they got to the plane, they discovered there were no empty seats. But fortunately (for them), the Soviet hockey team hadn't obtained the proper visas; so the comedy group was given their seats. Unfortunately, Aeroflot lost their luggage, props, costumes, and masks. But Emerson College was able to provide sweatshirts, tuxedo pants, jazz shoes, and costumes.

``Saturday Night Live'' they weren't - not quite. They lacked the practiced insouciance that comes with a few centuries of knowing that nose-thumbing usually won't get you arrested. But since public lampooning of leaders is so new in the USSR, for Americans to see its beginnings was a remarkable experience.

MUCH of the humor had to do with meek people constantly tweaking officious authorities or persistently standing up to bullies. One had to do with a satirist named Zoshchenko, who was imprisoned by Stalin for writing a song the group used in a skit. Just being able to say his name in public is a sign of progress. But for an audience that didn't know much about him, the significance whizzed by.

Another peril in seeing foreign theater is that it tends to awaken that shameful American habit of pouncing on the recognizable and then assuming that it was invented in the States. Tap dancing! They got that from Fred Astaire! No, wait, that looks like Irish clogging. Maybe there's a tap folk tradition in Russia, too. Or maybe they got it from the Irish.

Same thing with physical humor. An officious type was trying to keep a bevy of four smirking men in line. When he tapped one guy, the guy at the opposite end fell over. So he went to the other side, tapped that guy, and ran around to the end to catch the man as he fell. But - surprise - instead the first guy toppled. Right, I've seen that - with the Marx Brothers. They're American. (But weren't they Russian Jews?). Maybe they've all dipped into the universal well of humor.

FINALLY, some satire! In one cabaret number, they lip-synched to canned music while an English translation flashed on a screen over their heads. The song lampooned former President Reagan's visit to Moscow: `` You come to teach us our failures/ You come to teach us democracy .../ If we want our countries to be friends/ Our presidents should stay at home!''

The most recognizably ``Saturday Night Live''-ish sketch was a spoof of a video tele-bridge between a panel in Boston and one in Moscow. It skewered both nationalities. The lolling Bostonians were scatterbrained and patronizing (``Oh, you have no sugar? I'll send you some.''). The Muscovites looked stiff and talked in party-ese. There were frequent commercials for Pepsi that promised to cure romantic woes.

One big disappointment about the group was that its three women members were seen infrequently - and usually in stereotyped roles.

Members of the troupe knew that things were starting to change politically when they were invited to be part of the entertainment at the 19th Party Congress. Party delegates, expecting traditional folk songs, were treated to an onslaught of sketches lampooning the government. Gorbachev watched - and laughed.

The troupe was part of the second annual ``Satirical Subversives Festival,'' jointly sponsored by the Charlestown Working Theater and Emerson College. The other part was Spaulding Gray, who told of being invited to take a monologue to the USSR and of encountering an un-glasnost reception: After making a political jibe about Afghanistan, he found the next night the translation and technical equipment went mysteriously down hill.

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