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Dear Elena Sergaevna


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Spartacus Square Theatre

at Victory Gardens

For teachers the great paradox is that in order to educate students they must impose a discipline so seemingly mindless that it discourages the very reasoning they hope to teach. But both sides share responsibility. If students always knew what was best for them, they would teach themselves; since they don't, they must exchange an anarchic freedom for the chance to learn systematically.

As Dear Elena Sergaevna searingly shows, that shared responsibility can't easily be abandoned. For almost a decade this play by Soviet dramatist Lyudmilla Razumovskaya was banned from the Soviet stage; it was feared that its graphic depiction of trouble in the workers' paradise would poison morale. Now the dramatic illustration of perestroika, it's become Razumovskaya's most popular play (with a film version to come). Moscow's Spartacus Square Theatre has performed it over 200 times--and it shows: these five actors live it to the bursting point. In this invaluable Victory Gardens presentation nothing is lost in simultaneous translation.

Disturbing as hell, Dear Elena Sergaevna is a sort of Miss Margarida's Way where the students, not the teacher, are the bullies. The play fleshes out an unbridgeable gulf--between Elena, an idealistic Moscow teacher whose gospel is hard work and following rules, and four cynical and amoral high school students; they believe in no future because they can't imagine a future that believes in them.

It begins as the students, brimming over with false bonhomie, arrive unexpectedly at Elena's proper apartment to wish her a happy birthday. To the astonishment and delight of this lonely 42-year-old spinster they've brought flowers, cake, and a gift of (stolen) crystal glasses. Though embarrassed by these gratuities, she reluctantly accepts them.

The real reason for their visit is soon clear; they want the key to the safe where Elena keeps their math exams, which they intend to alter in order to graduate. (They rationalize the theft by saying that liberal-arts majors don't need to know math, but their fear is clear: if they don't pass, they'll have to settle for a lot less of the "good life," and may even die in Afghanistan.)

The students--alcoholic Vitya, nihilistic Pasha, and Pasha's gold-digger girlfriend Lally, for whom "life is a horrible joke"--are led by Volodya, a would-be diplomat and future Stalin; his end justifies any means. Believing that "each person has his weak point," the predatory pupils flatter, bribe, and finally threaten Elena--their once-beloved "second mother"--then lock the door, cut off the phone lines, and ransack the apartment. Elena, frantic and disbelieving, refuses to become a partner to their cheating.

Between Volodya and Elena there can be no quarter. A Machiavellian materialist, this brilliant and dangerous young man despises idealists like Elena; he wants to force her to see "the true face of life, even if it turns out to be a leering monster." The world Volodya sees is warped by bureaucratic indifference, favoritism, chronic shortages, alcoholism, the threat of nuclear war. But Elena, still the hopeful child of the 60s, maintains that standards count even when the establishment undermines them. To Volodya power sets all values, not morality--he will get it any way he can. (Keep this guy away from Gorbachev.)

This is much more than a Lord of the Flies with a Russian accent. When I saw it a year ago at Atlanta's Alliance Theatre in an untranslated staging by the Mossoviet Theater, it seemed mere melodrama; the synopsis we followed did little justice to the complexity of its arguments and I couldn't imagine how these cagey students could have imagined they could get away with their break-in. But this Spartacus Square production, reportedly the only one the author is satisfied with, works superbly as social expose and thrilling theater, and it fully conveys the desperate stupidity behind this home invasion.

Svetlana Vragova's staging offers kinetic performances worthy of the old Steppenwolf and, in Oksana Moysina's Elena, a well-tuned vulnerability that would not be out of place in Chekhov. Achingly right, Moysina moves from flustered delight at the surprise visit to wary defensiveness to total collapse. (Elena is unable even to look at these aliens she thought were pupils, who have even put on war paint to justify the attack.)

As the angelic logician-terrorist Volodya, Oleg Horitonov is frightening as he moves from seductive sympathy (literally waltzing Elena around) to a screeching falsetto as the boy fascist plays out his power fantasy. As the uneasy lovers Pasha and Lally, Viktor Mosienko and Irina Manulova resemble the proverbial kids next door; they then turn to bad seed so fast it hurts to watch. Finally, Sergei Pinegin as pathetic, boozing Vitya conveys with equal vigor both the kid and the monster. Nikita Tkachuk's set destroys itself well.

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