European Repertory Company
at American Theater Company
By Adam Langer
Born in Kiev in 1891, Mikhail Bulgakov wrote satirical plays and novels that were banned almost as quickly as he churned them out. Originally trained as a physician, he was skeptical of communist ideals and frequently ran afoul of Soviet censor boards. His novels The Heart of a Dog and The White Guard were suppressed, and in one year three of his plays were banned: The Days of the Turbins, The Crimson Island, and Zoyka's Apartment. He was alternately favored and reviled by Joseph Stalin, who allowed him to work for the Moscow Art Theatre but was also responsible for censoring some of his writings. Bulgakov died in 1940, yet it took more than 25 years for his most famous work, The Master and Margarita, to see mainstream publication in the Soviet Union.
Though Bulgakov has become something of a cult figure over the past decade--his vision is best known through The Master and Margarita and Keith Reddin's adaptation of his play Black Snow--much of his work remains unknown. Zoyka's Apartment is only now receiving its local premiere, from European Repertory Company in a new translation by Peter Christensen and ERC artistic director Yasen Peyankov, after several small productions in Great Britain.
An uproarious satire, Zoyka's Apartment was first produced in autumn 1926; despite numerous rewrites designed to make it more palatable to the authorities, it was banned three years later. Written in 1921 in response to Stalin's New Economic Policy, which removed some restrictions on trade and allowed for limited private enterprise, the play was presumably outlawed for its depiction of the decadence, vulgarity, and corrupt bureaucracy that flourished under Stalin's rule, not for its racist characterizations of Chinese bandits.
The trouble with modern productions of once controversial works is that the conflicts and issues they address don't always translate well when divorced from their political, social, and historical contexts. Christensen and Peyankov's sprightly text and Luda Lopatina's exhilarating madcap production offer a fairly good sense of the decadent society Bulgakov was mocking, in which limited freedoms made Russian citizens hunger for the temptations of the West. But there's also a sense that something's been lost in the translation of Bulgakov's slapstick universe of banditry, drug addiction, prostitution, and general mayhem. So when matters turn serious toward the play's end, the effect is more puzzling than profound. And when the curtain call comes, it seems less well-earned closure than an intermission before an unwritten second half.
Perhaps because the political context remains, well, foreign to a contemporary audience, the adapters and director have chosen to present Bulgakov's play more as farce than satire. The titular heroine ostensibly runs a seamstress shop in the titular dwelling, but by night it's a bordello where various society women moonlight as prostitutes, one of whom makes enough money to move to the West. The business is managed by Zoyka's cousin, an ingratiating dandy who peppers his conversation with French phrases demonstrating his Western tastes; Zoyka's husband serves as the bordello's pianist. Many of the shenanigans are observed by the cheerfully corrupt chairman of the Apartment House Committee. Meanwhile one of Zoyka's employees, the addled maid Manyushka, is pursued by two bloodthirsty Chinese men who speak in a Charlie Chan-esque pidgin English that does provide occasional cheap laughs but is somewhat problematic in light of the Chicago theater scene's slim opportunities for Asian-American actors--mostly infrequent productions of David Henry Hwang plays and revivals of Pacific Overtures.
Lopatina--who proved herself a fine director last season when she and Peyankov staged Alexander Galin's Stars in the Morning Sky--is more than capable of handling dramatically and intellectually complex material; here she coordinates the movements of nearly 20 actors with the skill of a master choreographer and the split-second precision of a relay-race team captain. For 100 minutes the play rumbles along like a runaway locomotive, picking up speed and making frequent violent, screeching shifts in direction. In one particularly insane scene, Zoyka's nocturnal employees perform an impromptu fashion show for Boris Goos, a metal-industry official, that suggests a striptease directed by the Marx Brothers, Mack Sennett, and Emir Kusturica.
The cast too is fine. Kurt Brocker as Zoyka's cousin and the de facto master of ceremonies offers a delightful picture of unctuous, officious savoir faire--as was said about a character in My Fair Lady, "oozing charm from every pore, he oiled his way across the floor." As the unfortunate Goos, who becomes the unwitting victim of a society that usually disregards bandits, Wesley Walker gives the play some of its few moments of calm. But truly there are no weak links here, and the ensemble work is seamless.
The only problem comes at the end, when the sudden conclusion and unexpected turns of events leave one not only breathless but perplexed and dissatisfied. The rather ugly ending seems intended to whip the rug out from under us, but it doesn't have an impact significant enough to justify the shift in tone. Following on the heels of so much goofy chaos, it comes across as somewhat muted comedy.
Ultimately this production offers less political or social commentary than one might hope, given Bulgakov's singular talent as a satirist and his strange, checkered history. As sheer entertainment, though, it's top-notch.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Maia Rosenfelt.