KI from Crime: Kama Ginkas Stages Dostoevsky
It was a perfect night for Dostoevsky. It was freezing cold and New York was bracing itself for a major snowstorm. As I was approaching the Freight Entrance tTheatre (which is not a theatre at all, but a warehouse), the streets of the Garment District looked grimmer and grimmer, and if I wanted, I could imagine myself in Saint Petersburg. On finding a door from a back alley, I saw a bunch of elderly Russians arguing with the usher. The usher was saying: "It's too early!" The Russians were saying: "It's too cold!"
I returned later. I made my way down a steep banister-free staircase and found myself in a cavernous basement-like space, with uneven floors and peeling paint. The oversized pipes wrapped in rags displayed their stumps from the ceiling. And it was cold. It was so cold, it was hard to stop shaking. "We'll be sitting at 7:25" said a cheerful usher. It was 6:45. I wasn't sure I would last.
Soon, the basement filled up. A mix of Russians and Americans, dressed up for the theatre, looked incongruous in the dilapidated space. Once we piled up into upstairs theatre, we found ourselves in a small dingy room, with the same pipes and the same peeling paint. To fit the ambiance, the room was full of strategically placed but mismatched chairs. This was a real thing.
Once the audience reluctantly settled into the wobbly chairs, the double doors in the corner opened and out ran Katerina Ivanovna, aka KI (Oksana Mysina). KI is a widow of Raskolnikov's drinking buddy Marmeladov, who has recently died in a gruesome accident. In fact, we meet KI when she is busy arranging a memorial dinner in her husband's honor, and we, the audience, are the guests. She is poverty-stricken and sick with tuberculosis (or as she would probably call it, consumption). Her illness, her grief, and her devastation are driving her mad. She is coherent at times, but more often than not she is ranting, her emotions raw, and her consciousness clouded with the shadows of the past.
The actress Mysina is a strong, tall woman with a commanding presence. Her KI wears a dark overcoat (clearly handed down to her), ripped and patched up-and not much underneath. Her worn out boots look raw and painful on her naked legs. Her ankles are wrapped in kitchen towels-she lost her stockings, she explains, since Marmeladov drank up everything. Her blond hair is disheveled like that of a homeless person. Yet, as a trace of KI's once genteel life, there is a thin braid in her hair, with a little flower woven into it.
KI keeps running in and out of the room, like a housewife who is trying to make preparations for the party. Yet, these preparations, perhaps like the dinner itself, are entirely imaginary. But as she is running around, she tells us the story of her life, or a fantasy of her life-that's all she has. Mixing dates and people, and jumping from one point to another, she tries to reaffirm her dignity. She was once a lady, a beloved daughter (or perhaps wife) of a nobleman, dancing in the ballrooms "with a shawl." She runs to get a battered case with relics of her past and produces from it, indeed, a shawl, although reduced by age. "Dancing," she exclaims again and again, "with a shawl!" as she is pushing the old rag onto an audience member. This physical evidence of her past status is important to her, and she holds on to it as the last resort of her sanity, but to no avail. Next out of the case comes a photograph of her beloved father (or is it her husband?), carefully wrapped for safekeeping in a newspaper. Incidentally, this newspaper, symbolizing "good old days," is
Pravda from 1991, dating back to the time before the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
In KI's madness, she recognizes her acquaintances among the audience members. A calm middle-aged woman becomes for her Amalia Ivanovna, her much-hated landlady. A young man in a white sweater is picked for the "role" of Raskolnikov. He becomes a guest of honor, and is even offered some styrofoam mats for comfort. And even though these people never "act," due to the magnetic power of Mysina's performance, they become for us Amalia and Raskolnikov. KI's relationships with the two constitute the emotional range of the production: from contempt to admiration.
In these scenes, KI is brutal, funny, and raw. In her feverish speech, she may be mixing up people and events, but the emotional trajectory remains clear-it is a trajectory of loss.
As KI becomes more and more agitated, she seemingly reaches an impasse, but then, at this moment of despair, the doors open (the same doors she's been using as the only set) and reveal an entrance to another space. We are drawn into this space. The second part of the show (the actual dinner) then takes place in a painfully white room-spacious, with neat rows of white chairs rising amphitheatre-style nearly to the ceiling, in stark contrast with the cave-like first room. The transition gives the show a second wind, and perhaps gives KI a second chance. KI herself sits "the guests," reserving the special seats for the audience members she recognizes as Raskolnikov and Amalia.
On one side of the white room is a long white table (which looks like it's covered with a tablecloth), with a Russian-style spread: an unfinished bottle of vodka, an authentic Russian cut-glass tumbler (the kind that was used everywhere in the Soviet era) with a slice of dark bread over it. In the corner are huddled KI's children: Kolya, Polya, and Lida, all of them played by actual children (Eugene Vovk, Elizabeth Boiko, and Bridget Clark). Kolya and Polya are in oversized maen's jackets, old, and spotted, fastened with clothespins. Lida, the youngest one, is crippled,; she sits on a tiny cart made of old rags, a thin white kerchief tied on her head. The children have an angelic presence, their faces and eyes are so as pristine as their clothes are filthy.
As KI continues to rant, her anger and exasperation increase. Deprived of power, dignity, and sanity, she goes on to fight with her own children, with Amalia, and with other chimaeras. In her weakness and desperation, she strives to inflict pain on others.
Especially striking is KI's taunting treatment of Amalia, which eventually results in KI's eviction from her apartment. KI derides Amalia's German heritage, and refuses to call her by her Russian patronymic Ivanovna, insisting on the Germanic one Ludvigovna. KI keeps repeating this patronymic, emphasizing the second part: "Ludvi-GOVNA" [govno is Russian for shit]. KI grimaces at Amalia, teases her with noises and gestures, and then turns to the audience to share her contempt of Amalia: "Look at her, she doesn't understand a single thing!"
Once she is done with Amalia, KI turns on her children, forcing them to perform for alms, to sing and dance. As the older girl is trying to save KI from disgrace and prevent her from drinking, KI raises her hand, and a scene of abuse ensues-horrifying and heartbreaking, so that we feel sorry for both the abuser and the abused.
But then, there are quiet moments, when KI's grace returns. And then she remembers her husband, shows us his portrait again, lovingly folding and unfolding it. And then KI produces a piece of candy, found in her late husband's pocket. "Just imagine," she says, "He was dead drunk, but he still rememberss the children." And as she is telling the story, she gets hold of poor Kolya, and every time she says "remembers", she is striking him, and thus a bitter-sweet memory of her past is transformed into the abuse of her present.
As the end nears, KI's state deteriorates, she is panting, as she forces her children to sing for us one more time. She undresses them and prods them to perform. In the next scene, KI, completely mad now, sing along with her three half-naked children, who obediently mumble words in Russian and French, moving like sleepwalkers. This scene reaches a climax of unbearable suffering. It cannot go on. KI collapses against the wall. Polya tries to sit her up, but to no avail.
The end, however tragic, is redemptive. In the moment of blackout, the children are gone, and a ladder descends from the ceiling, as we hear roaring music. KI picks herself up, climbs the ladder, and in the dark, swings on the ladder from one side to another, shaking it as if in a fight. She is fighting God for her redemption. This scene, with its biblical motifs, is a masterpiece of Ginkas's direction. The scene echoes Jacob's wrestling with the angels, which earned him a new name and status. KI fights God and wins. She wins a right to redemption, a right to exit from the world of unbearable suffering. The scene culminates in a crescendo, and in another blackout KI is gone. It's quiet. The light goes on. We are left with a patch of empty floor underneath a hitched up ladder. The catharsis is complete.
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Left to right: Eugene Vovk, Oksana Mysina, Elizabeth Boiko, Bridget Clark
Photo: (c) Ken Reynolds
(courtesy of the photographer)
This production, though the play is far from the original plot, is true to the spirit of the novel. As always with Dostoevsky, the performance is at the highest peak of emotional intensity. But this a very contemporary Dostoevsky, with irony and self-awareness-this is post-Dostoevsky. There are three elements in Ginkas's direction that make his production so contemporary: audience involvement, metatheatre, and the use of language.
In Ginkas's production, Mysina takes chances with her audience. The audience includes about 40 people, and Mysina performs literally inches, away from them-all interactions are intimate. Mysina makes the audience take KI personally. The comfortable distance of the ramp is gone. Mysina sits in people's laps, gets into their face, pulls them by the hand. When KI turns to them and asks "Verstehen?" in her mock German, they have no choice but to meet her eyes and nod.
She is not always benevolent. In one instance, she approaches a middle-aged man who is looking bored in the corner, and starts pestering him: What has happened to her? Why is it that her life has become a monstrous injustice? Why is it that no one, including this man, cares? At one point, she even tricks the audience: she invites them to follow her to a second room, but as people get up to follow her, she protests and makes fun of them.
And yet, the audience involvement in this production is not just pranks and gimmicks. It is KI's way of establishing contact. It is her way to reach out to strangers and to make herself count, if only in some minor way. KI is deprived of everything, and we empathize with her as she is depriving us of our space and our comfort, physically and metaphorically.
Another aspect of Ginkas's direction is his language choices. The production exists in linguistic limbo. It takes place in-between Russian and English, with interjections of both French-a language of high culture, and German-an alien language (within the world of the play).
This linguistic hybridity functions as a translation: KI speaks in Russian, and translates herself into English. But (like in Godard's
Notre Musique) the translation is never full, and its incompleteness emphasizes frustration and suffering. Thus the audiences, depending on their linguistic proficiencies, watch different shows. As in Godard's film, this emphasizes the fragility of the human capacity for understanding, and the open-endedness of interpretation.
In one such disparate moment, KI launches into an elaborate monolog in Russian about her husband's once spectacular career (it's never clear whether she talks about her first husband or the wretched Marmeladov). She interjects contemporary slang (áëÿ) into her speech. Russian-speakers laugh at the incongruence of low-class modern jargon with Dostoevsky's prose. But then all KI says in English, is "He lied, the son of a bitch."
Translation also serves as repetition, which is another aspect of characteristic of Ginkas's direction. For instance, in his famous
Lady with the Lapdog, the characters repeat the same words over and over, with different emotional meanings each time. Here, the repetition-by-translation does not just broaden the emotional range of the dialogue, it gives the show an almost ritual significance.
Metatheatre, the third distinctive feature of Ginkas's direction, emerges at the intersection of translation and repetition. Metatheatre is a variation of play-within-a-play, when an actor signals to the audience that the play is a fabricated theatrical reality. The actors are both the characters and the actors who perform those characters. They are conscious of being part of a spectacle-an object of the audience's gaze. Metatheatre changes the interaction of the actors with the audience by allowing for an exchange between audience and actor, rather than a broadcast from actor to audience.
At one point KI asks the audience, in Russian: "Nu, did I translate it well?" The character on stage is simultaneously a character and an actor doing her job and asking for a bit of encouragement. In another instance, Mysina alone enacts Russian Orthodox Church services for her late husband. She sings alternatively in the deep masculine voice of a priest, and then switches to the high-pitched voice of a female choir singer. She starts coughing from this effort, and says to the audience: "I am not succeeding in three voices, so come on, pitch in, sing with me." Once again, this is coming from a performer, not from KI (as KI is not leading the service). At another time, KI/Mysina looks at the audience with a confused look, and asks, "Did I say that already? Am I repeating myself?" It is unclear who is saying this: the character or the performer.
The fictionality of the show is also highlighted by including events out in the real world. In the first part of the show, when one of the pipes continuously bangs (like so many New York radiators), KI angrily grabs a hammer and beats on it, sprinkling paint peelings onto the audience. Later in the show, it so happened that some police business unfolded right outside. The red flashes, visible through a window high above the stage, colored the whole scene sinisterly. With the sound of the siren, KI shuddered and looked out to the window.
Thus metatheatre created a Brechtian 'alienation effect', distancing the audience from the characters of the show, and making the audience aware of the staged nature of the production. In Brecht's words, "…the narrator is no longer missing, along with the fourth wall".1
Such acting, with improvisation, audience involvement, and the need to include the outside world on the fly, demands acting mastery. Mysina delivers. She is not just a highly professional actor, she is also an actor of tremendous energy. She carries the entire performance on her shoulders. She works almost completely solo, with no sets, virtually no props, and no music or sound effects (besides naturally occurring ones). Only in the scene of KI's death is there some use of music and the prop of a ladder. The rest is Mysina and her intelligent focused energy.
The play KI from Crime was written by Kama Ginkas's son, Daniil Gink, in 1993 and originally produced at Moscow New Generation Theatre (MTYZ). Since then, it was translated into English, German, Bulgarian, and Hungarian, and performed all over the world.
KI from Crime in New York is a co-production of MTYZ and The Foundry Theatre.2
KI from Crime relates to Dostoevsky in the same way in which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard relates to Shakespeare. In Stoppard, two marginal characters become the main heroes, allowing us to reenvision the plot from their vantage point.
KI from Crime allows for the same shift. In KI from Crime the minor character in the original novel becomes an intense focus of the director's examination. We witness several hours in her life (the show only lasts an hour-and-a-half, though it feels longer for its emotional density), following her efforts to arrange a dinner (not unlike Wolf's
Mrs. Dalloway); and like with Mrs. Dalloway, these few hours become a time of introspection and crises. (Even as KI in her state reminds us more of Septimus Smith, a wounded mad ex-soldier).
It seems significant that Ginkas chose to refocus the plot of the classic novel from Raskolnikov, a young educated man, to a side character, a middle-aged widow. One may say that Ginkas created an alternative literary reality, where the focus is not on a male world of moral dilemmas, but on a female world of everyday survival. A world where the character doesn't kill, but dies herself.
The show begs to be read vis-à-vis the contemporary Russian context. The minimal props that Ginkas uses queue cue us not to the time of Dostoevsky, but to the recent period. The vodka is a contemporary brand of
Stolichnaya, the children wear battered but contemporary clothes (Soviet-style cotton stockings and man's jackets on Kolya and Polya, a zipped top on Lida). KI's speech has contemporary elements (like her use of jargon), and finally the newspaper bit covering her husband's photograph is from 1991 (which the audience can see easily).
On some level, KI can be read as a symbol of Russia. Russia is associated in Russian language with femininity and motherhood (Ðîññèÿ-Ìàòü, Ðîäèíà-Ìàòü), and KI's identity does not exist apart from her being a woman and a mother. Her sickness, her feverish condition, and her desperate attempt to do the right thing (to gather respectable people in husband's honor, to teach her kids French), her insistence of her dignified past, but also her desperate aggressiveness and her taunting xenophobia, and her overwhelming sense of loss, all this resonates in more ways than not with the trajectory of the recent Russian history.
KI from Crime emerges as a narrative that can be read on several levels: on the level of rethinking a classic literary tradition, on the level of a story of particular suffering of a particular woman, on the level of a story of human suffering, and also on the level of an allegory-as a contemporary Russian epos.
At the end it all comes together: the cavernous basement, the waiting in the cold, the confusion, the discomfort. It is a perfect way to see Dostoevsky.