Eugene Onegin

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Eugene Onegin
Photograph: Valeriy Myasnikov

Eugene Onegin. New York City Center (see Off Broadway). By A.S. Pushkin. Directed by Rimas Tuminas. With ensemble cast. Running time: 3hrs 25mins. One intermission.

Eugene Onegin: In brief

The second annual Cherry Orchard Festival invites the Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre of Russia to show New Yorkers writer-director Rimas Tuminas's acclaimed adaptation of Pushkin's classic verse novel, accented with music by Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky.

Eugene Onegin: Theater review by Helen Shaw

Some of the world's great theater directors never (or too rarely) come to New York—perhaps because large international productions are too costly, or perhaps because too much rests on the shoulders of the Lincoln Center Festival and BAM. Whatever the reason, this weekend is the first time in my memory that Rimas Tuminas, the Lithuanian director now at the head of Moscow's legendary Vakhtangov Theatre, has been seen in New York. You must not miss him now.

You only have three days to race over to City Center for the remaining tickets, and while there are certain barriers to your perfect pleasure there—a skull-splitting sound design, a treatment of Eugene Onegin so intimate that non-Russians will inevitably be a little confused—it's a chance to see both a masterpiece and a master artist and to take inspiration from both. It's also a chance to see the Vakhtangov ensemble's method, built around physical improvisations that forge a chain of interpretive musical interludes that become a spine nearly as strong as the narrative itself.

Pushkin's poem about the bored, restless aristocrat Onegin furnishes the Romantic (and little-r romantic) energies. In the country, Onegin makes a friend, the innocent Lensky, who introduces him to his cheerful betrothed and her introspective sister Tatyana (Eugeniya Kregzhde). Tatyana falls instantly in love, which throws her into marvelous, funny agonies: She first pummels her inhospitable pillow and pesters her nurse, then—shouting louder than Faustas Latenas's Tchaikovsky-soaked music—spins bed and nurse alike in giddy, widening circles. Onegin rejects her and later finds himself forced into a duel with Lensky, which he, tragically, wins. Disaffection has turned to feeling too late.

The first act is punctuated by a group of dancing women, who parade across an elevated pathway in the back, as though we've interrupted their ballet class. They become Lensky's neighbors; in the second act, they become the cream of St. Petersburg society, where they hover above the stage on delicate swings. Some of these theatrical embroideries can be bewildering, as when a dancing bunny rabbit comes in to lollop around a coachman. Others, though, have an overwhelmingly emotional effect.

People multiply, as do moments: Poor Tatyana's excruciating name-day celebration becomes a delightfully absurd tour of every gloomy Russian cliché. In Tuminas's version, Onegin is two men—young, sharky Viktor Dobronravov and world-weary Alexey Guskov—the older man sitting wrapped in his coat at the side of the stage, rueful and rageful at the mistakes he sees his young self making. Dobronravov's black coat, with its 19th-century stack of collars, slices a moving emptiness out of the already dark stage, a brilliantly designed space backed by an enormous, shivering mirror. We can see him from every angle—and only his older self is looking away.—Theater review by Helen Shaw

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