Mark Jackson’s The Death of Meyerhold, opens with the phrase, “Give me life or death, only not sleep!” Unfortunately, sleep is the only reaction that the three-hour, two-intermission play provokes.
Set in early 19th century Russia, Studio Theatre’s new play explores the life and death of its title character in conjunction with the political trend of the day; the audience watches Vselvolod Meyerhold (Joel Reuben Ganz) go from bossing around actors during the country’s civil war to bossing around actors during the height of Stalin’s reign. In fact, Meyerhold’s hostility toward anyone – including the great actor and director Konstantin Stanislavsky – who dares not to yield to his abstract, physical style (dubbed “biomechanics”) leads to political clashes and his execution in 1940.
The play’s opening follows suit with its extended running time; it takes about 15 minutes to understand who’s who and what’s going on. The newly renovated Studio Theatre makes good use of its space, giving the characters room for the extensive movement required in a Meyerhold production (the entire play is performed in his style). However, director Rick Simas does not take into account the intimate characterization needed to sustain such an alternatively fashioned play; the characters are distant, and when the production goes off on one of its many tangents the audience is left with nothing to hold on to.
Tangent, in fact, may be too weak a word for a play that has more of them than not. Often, characters take breaks in the middle of a scene to give historical context or argue about the meaning of their lines. While it appears to be a unique interpretation (in one scene, Meyerhold explodes and shouts at the audience, “I hate pretending that you’re not there!”), it is actually the only way to present extensive information that no one would ever know otherwise. This strategy – and the knowledge it is trying to project – is too complicated. The play begins to seem more like a PBS biography than a performance.
However, that may be a good thing. While “The Death of Meyerhold” does have a few shining stars (Scott Kerns comes to mind as the brilliant composer Shostakovich), its acting leave much to be desired. For an innovative, passionate director, Meyerhold is the picture of stoicism; his unchanging scowl and belligerence overshadow the struggle of his chaotic battle for respect. As his wife, Zinaida Raikh (Katya Falikova) isn’t much better. She whines with a hideous, misplaced Russian accent (Why? Nobody else has one) and there is no tangible chemistry between the pair. They merely deliver their lines to one another, missing a fabulous opportunity to turn a melodramatic biography into a strong, touching play.
Luckily, the three hours are not an entire waste. The choreographer (Beth Wilmurt) does a beautiful job coordinating the production’s extensive movement. However, even Wilmurt’s breathtakingly chaotic final flashback scene cannot salvage the fact that “The Death of Meyerhold” fails to do its job: upon the play’s end, you care nothing for either Meyerhold or his death. Perhaps that’s why Stanislavsky is the famous one today; Meyerhold’s direction shunned emotions, but without them, there is simply no story to tell.
“The Death of Meyerhold” runs on the Studio Theatre Secondstage until Feb. 13. Tickets are $25. Go to www.studiotheatre.org for show times.