Theater Review: A Spectacular Russian Staging of “Eugene Onegin”

I was mesmerized by the evocative stage pictures and the straight-at-the-audience, presentational mode of the actors, whose facial expressions and gestures so viscerally conveyed the emotional lives of the characters.

Eugene Onegin, a stage version of the Pushkin novel, adapted and directed by Rimas Tuminas. A Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre of Russia production, presented by ArtsEmerson and the Cherry Orchard Festival at Cutler Majestic Theater, Boston, MA, June 6 and 7.


Alexel Guskov and Eugeniya Kregzhde in the Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre production of “Eugene Onegin.” Photo: Valeriy Myasnikov.

By Iris Fanger

The Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre of Russia’s stage adaptation of A.S. Pushkin’s 19th-century verse novel Eugene Onegin is set in a ballet studio, backed by a huge, black tinged, fun-house mirror that reflects a contorted view of the action. At curtain rise an ancient crone of a ballet mistress is leading a class of eight budding ballerinas dressed in virginal white at a barre stretched across the rear of the space. A ballet master demonstrates the positions for the neophytes. These dancers re-appeared throughout the production as friends and neighbors of the major characters.

Dressed in a heavy black overcoat and slumped in a chair at stage left, actor Alexei Guskov is cast as the mature Onegin, who, caught up in his memories, is barely watching. He is recalling his earlier life when, as a dissolute man of 18, he carelessly set in motion the events that continue to haunt him. His alter-ego in the past, the young Onegin, portrayed by the sleek, narcissistic Viktor Dobronavov, shadows him throughout the three and one-half hour-long performance.

Guskov, a multi-award winner, including the People’s Artist of the Russian Federation and the State Prize of the Russian Federation, led an expansive cast of 35 actors, who spoke in their native language, to the delight of the large number of their countrymen and women in the audience. As an English speaker and viewer, I might have been bewildered, except for the imaginative visual tilt to the production, and clues provided in the translated lines that were flashed above the proscenium. A woman sitting nearby, who was bi-lingual, asked me if I understood the performance because so much of the dialogue was left off of the sub-titles.

In truth, I was mesmerized by the evocative stage pictures and the straight-at-the-audience, presentational mode of the actors, whose facial expressions and gestures so viscerally conveyed the tumultuous emotional lives of the characters. As I watched the exceptional cast, many of them recipients of the kind of high honors awarded to Guskov, I realized how little we know of Russian theatrical life, other than the few plays that have been translated and produced in the West, along with the Stanislavski technique of acting, which was taught here in the mid-20th-century and adapted for American use.


Eugeniya Kregzhde, Viktor Dobronravov, and Alexel Guskov in the Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre production of “Eugene Onegin.” Photo: Valeriy Myasnikov.

The outlines of Pushkin’s work are well-known, given that Western audiences are familiar with Pushkin’s masterpiece from either Tchaikovsky’s opera or choreographer John Cranko’s three-act ballet. The young Onegin rebuffs the innocent love of Tatyana Larina, which she declares in a famous letter. Onegin was introduced to her family by his best friend, Vladimir Lensky, suitor to her sister, Olga. After Onegin begins a thoughtless flirtation with Olga, Lensky challenges him to a duel. To Onegin’s eternal regret, Lensky is mortally wounded. Despite her grief, Olga later marries, while Tatyana meets an aristocrat in Moscow and becomes his wife. When Onegin and Tatyana meet again, he declares his love. But Tatyana refuses him, though she admits she still loves him. There are few — if any– happy endings for the characters in Russian literature or drama.

The mastermind behind the conceptual stage adaptation (and director of the Vakhtangov troupe), Rimas Tuminas, has fashioned this Eugene Onegin to be more of a pageant or a spectacle than a drama, nimbly blurring the lines among theater, opera, and ballet. More than once I wondered if the actors had been trained as dancers, so total was the physicality of their approach. Ruminas also made much of the props: the letter, torn up but later pieced together and framed; the accordion strapped to Olga’s chest, to suggest her gaiety; the hearse-like coach that conveys Tatyana and her friends to Moscow, and the heavy bed, bench, and chairs that Tatyana lugs around the stage to give very visible weight to her sadness.

Tuminas omitted many of Pushkin’s descriptive ruminations on the action, but he sharpened the focus on the women, giving them special attention. Eugeniya Kregzhde as Tatyana transforms before our eyes from a naïve country child to a woman of society, cool and contained. Her sister Olga serves as a radical contrast, but she too is changed by the tragedy into a dutiful bride, trapped in a society where there’s not much else for an upper class woman other than to make a “good” marriage. Tuminas creates a memorable stage picture when the story shifts to Moscow: Tatyana and her friends sway, like so many bodies up for auction, in silver swings above the heads of the men.

Although “recollection and repentence” were among the first works flashed above the proscenium at the beginning of the production, it is difficult to believe that this Onegin has learned from experience. He thinks back and perhaps wonders what might have been, but we never believe he would have behaved otherwise, no matter the character’s showy histrionics. Pushkin gave the world an indelible portrait of a well-born aristocrat consumed by ennui, with little on his mind aside from his memories and desires. The writer made sure we understood that a life so lived would bring nothing in the end but a seat alone at the sidelines, an existence destined for superficiality.

Iris Fanger is a theater and dance critic based in Boston. She has written reviews and feature articles for the Boston Herald, Boston Phoenix, Christian Science Monitor, New York Times, and Patriot Ledger as well as for Dance Magazine and Dancing Times (London).

Former director of the Harvard Summer Dance Center, 1977-1995, she has taught at Lesley Graduate School and Tufts University, as well as Harvard and M.I.T. She received the 2005 Dance Champion Award from the Boston Dance Alliance and in 2008, the Outstanding Career Achievement Award from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts. She lectures widely on dance and theater history.

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