"I am practically a citizen of Chicago!" declares Valeryi Beliakovich through an interpreter. Indeed, the maverick Russian director is in town for the fifth time in less than two years, as part of an ongoing exchange program between his Studio Theatre of Moscow- Southwest and the theater department of the University of Illinois at Chicago.
It's late Friday afternoon. Beliakovich, a stocky, balding man in his late 30s, is rehearsing a bunch of energetic students for an upcoming production of Goldoni's Mirandolina at the UIC Theatre. They watch him intently as he gesticulates, poses, pantomimes the motions he wants them to go through. He shows an actress how to shake her rump; she follows. Everyone laughs. At times he supplements his physical demonstrations with comments given in broken, slangy English. The actors seem to grasp what he means right away. Nearby, a Russian-English dictionary sits idle. At one point during the rehearsal, the cast makes its entrance shouting, hooting, jumping, and prancing to some blaring Soviet rock music. The production promises to be earthy, rambunctious, deliberately unintellectual yet intensely psychological. "Valeryi directs by instinct. He's very physical; he even takes us through exercise techniques," says Nicole Garneau, who's playing Mirandolina. "He's fun to work with as a director and a teacher."
In Moscow, Beliakovich's unorthodox directing style has earned him and his troupe, in less than a decade, much respect and renown. His 120- seat theater is packed for every performance, and fans don't mind waiting months for tickets--a far cry from the early days, in the mid-70s, when this graduate of the prestigious drama school GITIS (State Institute of Theater and Cinema) and his childhood buddies entertained for a pittance at "beaches and summer camps." The only trained actor among them, he had decided against a traditional career. They soon established a studio theater, Beliakovich says, when "the authorities of the southwest workers' sector [of Moscow] gave us a small space." Despite threats of censorship, they mounted productions of "foreign plays like Beckett and Ionesco."
Studio, or amateur, theaters have been a phenomenon in the Soviet Union since Stanislavsky's time: innovative and fiercely independent of the bureaucracy, they offer an alternative to the state-run "professional" theaters, to official culture. During the repressive Brezhnev era, Beliakovich says, audiences "trusted only studio theaters and attended their plays for innuendos, hints of rebellion." Since Gorbachev's reform, studio theaters have proliferated--there are now about 300--yet most barely survive on modest state subsidies. The Southwest studio, however, has grown into a sizable company of 32 performers, who no longer have to work at day jobs. One of them, Victor Avilov, a former truck driver, has a side career as a movie star. "We were the first to become self-supporting as a cooperative, in 1985." The director adds with a mischievous grin: "I don't like to deal with an inordinate amount of red tapes. And no propagandas for the state. Chekhov once said, 'One has to squeeze out the slavishness one by one.'"
The Studio Theatre-Southwest's remarkable success can be attributed to its pool of talented though not formally trained actors, to its unusual 30-play repertoire, and to Beliakovich's striking direction. Lighting is a critical element in his mise-en-scene: actors often appear in spotlights on a darkened stage, the shafts of light carving out psychological spaces. Beliakovich says he was inspired by Rembrandt: "The light focuses the attention on the face, the eyes. That is essential." A British critic reviewing his Hamlet of two years ago noted, "A distracted Ophelia darts across the stage pursued by aggressive pools of light. It is the most harrowing 'mad scene' I have ever seen." Beliakovich is amused by suggestions that his theatrics bring to mind the Living Theater and Peter Brooks, whose works he's only heard about, and credits a teacher at GITIS for stressing "the internal self-image of the world as well as ideas about emotional presentation and rhythmic flow." He also feels strongly that Russian theater should "become more colloquial, more about life and people, about broader moral questions like love."
Mirandolina is all about love. In 18th-century Italy, Goldoni's plays represented a departure from commedia dell'arte, the improvisational form that had entertained Europe for 200 years; they added a bit of realism to the genre's stock characters and situations. Mirandolina's eponymous heroine is an innkeeper whose common sense and lusty charms mesmerize four suitors, each from a different social milieu and each personifying a different aspect of the male ego. She teaches them a lesson or two about love but also has to pick the right one for her husband. Explaining why he chose it for the UIC students, Beliakovich says, "It's a visual play, not too difficult, not a lot of problems. It's a timeless love story, easy for audiences to understand." Goldoni is not well-known in the States, he observes wryly, "But he has always been popular with us. We find the Italian folk theater very much like ours. Petrushka and Harlequin are the same person."
UIC theater head Bill Raffeld and his group were introduced to Beliakovich and his colleagues serendipitously. "We knew nothing about them," Raffeld says, "when we were asked to host them for the Chicago portion of their first American tour. And we hit it off." The friendship blossomed quickly; Raffeld and selected UIC theater majors have visited Moscow twice. "At Valeryi's theater, we gave the first bilingual production of a play in Moscow's modern theatrical history," says Raffeld of the first trip. "The audience response was very touching." Garneau, who has learned enough Russian to converse with Beliakovich, says "It was a truly educational experience." More exchanges are in the works, according to Raffeld, including an alliance between GITIS and UIC's theater department.
Asked about his opinion of Chicago's theater scene, Beliakovich replies with a disarming smile: "I wish I had the time to see plays in our city. The one I saw last year was not creative at all. But they tell me the Steppenwolf is very good. It is like my theater, yes?"
The UIC Theater is located at 1040 W. Harrison. Performances are on November 1, 2, 3, 9, and 10 at 7:30 PM, and November 8 and 11 at 2:15 PM. Admission ranges from $5 to $8. A "Russian-American cabaret" emceed by Beliakovich and Raffeld will take place after the November 10 performance; the $20 tab includes dinner and admission to the play. Further info can be obtained by calling 996-2939.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.