NEW YORK — The pleasures and discontents of family life form the basis of perhaps the single best-known sentence Leo Tolstoy ever wrote. It’s from “Anna Karenina,’’ as translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’’
In “Family Happiness,’’ a Tolstoy novella adapted for the stage and directed by Piotr Fomenko in a production premiered in Moscow in 2000, a young woman named Masha spends her time grasping at happiness of very different — and, alas for her, mutually exclusive — kinds.
Featuring a quite marvelous performance by Ksenia Kutepova as Masha, who veers between domesticity and the giddy whirl of high society, “Family Happiness’’ arrives Saturday in Boston for a two-day stint at the Cutler Majestic Theatre, presented by ArtsEmerson and Maestro Artist Management. “Family Happiness’’ had its US premiere last weekend at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York.
There’s a dreamlike quality to this production by Theatre-Atelier Piotr Fomenko, which is performed in Russian with English surtitles.
Fomenko, who died last year at 80, was a major figure in contemporary Russian theater as a director and as a teacher of acting and directing. His 2004 production of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters’’ was widely acclaimed; that same year, he brought his company’s adaptation of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace’’ to Lincoln Center Festival, with Kutepova in the cast.
After his death, an appreciation in The Economist noted that “Fomenko sensed the ages of Tolstoy and Chekhov as different but intimately connected to his own,’’ adding that “he was perhaps the last Russian artist who could claim their heritage.’’ However, the director faced many struggles in the early stages of his career, often landing in hot water with Soviet authorities, who saw his experimental work as politically provocative. He was blacklisted by some theaters; in the mid-1960s, censors banned his production of “The Death of Tarelkin,’’ which focused on police torture. Two decades ago Fomenko founded his own theater, Theatre-Atelier Piotr Fomenko, whose nucleus included some of his own former drama students.
One of them is Kutepova, who, in “Family Happiness,’’ plays Masha as a 17-year-old and as a woman wistfully recalling her youth. In every gesture and intonation, the actress is vividly alive. Sylph-like in a thin white dress, the young Masha is a figure in constant motion, fluttering about her provincial home on tiptoe, as if trying to illuminate the drab surroundings through sheer force of personality — and suggesting a restlessness that will later complicate her marriage.
A tentative romance blooms between Masha and Sergey (Alexey Kolubkov), a friend of her late father who is nearly two decades her senior. The stolid Sergey is leery of being drawn in too deep, both for Masha’s sake and for his own. “You are young and life is just a game for you,’’ he tells her. “You want to play, and I need something else.’’ Masha, though, is persistent. In one entrancing scene, she coaxes Sergey to join her in smelling household objects, as if trying to bring him alive to the world of sensation and to the pleasures of the everyday.
Yet after they marry and move to his estate, the everyday is not enough for Masha: She is soon miserable. The children she has with Sergey are referred to but unseen. While Sergey stands at an abacus, intent on his business, she chafes at the limitations of a life she thought she wanted. She breaks free of those limitations when they travel, at last, to St. Petersburg: They are invited to a royal ball, and Masha finds herself the object of young men’s attention.
Swept up in the dancing, in movement, she becomes someone she’s never been before: a grown-up, glamorous, cosmopolitan Masha. (The swooping choreography is by Valentina Gurevich.) Later, summering in Baden, she dallies with an Italian nobleman. Her marriage is coming apart, and the once-carefree Masha faces a life-defining choice.
Early in the play, she asks: “Why live for the sake of another, if you don’t want to live for your own?’’ As Masha learns, it’s a question with no simple answer.Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.