NEW YORK — The only other time the Moscow theater company visited the United States — in 2004, for Lincoln Center Festival — it still had its leader, the renowned Russian director Piotr Fomenko.
He was 80 when he died last August, and it is one of his productions, an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s novella “Family Happiness,” that Theatre-Atelier Piotr Fomenko is performing on its current American tour, which opened a week ago at the Baryshinikov Arts Center in Manhattan and alights at the Cutler Majestic Theatre for two performances Saturday and Sunday.
“It’s very difficult without him,” Alexey Kolubkov, a company member since 2001 and the leading man in “Family Happiness,” said through an interpreter the morning after the production’s US premiere. “He wasn’t just a teacher. He wasn’t just a leader. He was more of a protector.”
“On our battleship, he was the nose,” actress Ksenia Kutepova, a company member since 1993 and the star of “Family Happiness,” said in a separate interview. She, too, spoke through an interpreter, but she also spoke with her body, pressing her fingertips together to make her hands into the ship’s prow. “We were all behind him.”
Even so, Kolubkov said, they knew that one day they would be without him.
“He had several diseases that could have killed him along the way,” Kolubkov said, “and the doctors were stupefied, because they kept telling him to take medicine; he wouldn’t take medicine. They told him not to take medicine; he did take medicine. They told him to rest; he went to work. So he did everything the opposite of what he was told.”
Now, the actors said, it is the 20-year-old troupe’s responsibility to carry on his legacy.
On its 2004 US visit, which did not go beyond New York, Theatre-Atelier also came bearing Tolstoy. Then it was Fomenko’s adaptation of “War and Peace,” performed in tandem with his production of Alexander Pushkin’s “Egyptian Nights.”
“By the first intermission,” critic Jeremy McCarter wrote in a front-page “War and Peace” review in The New York Sun, “the Russians make you feel a little sheepish about the relative state of American acting; by the final curtain you’ll want to change the subject altogether, falling back on more defensible terrain — the superiority of our rock bands, for instance. Actor after actor steps forward to display seemingly effortless, precisely calibrated brilliance.”
Singled out for praise in that review and others was Kutepova, who in “Family Happiness” plays Masha, the central character: a provincial girl who falls in love with and marries a much older man. She grows into a woman who finds neither the provinces nor the man, named Sergey and played by Kolubkov, sufficient to make her happy.
In a recent interview with the website Classical TV, Baryshnikov Arts Center artistic director Mikhail Baryshnikov extolled Fomenko’s work with actors, particularly women. “Much in the way Pedro Almodóvar creates extraordinary roles for women in film,” he said, “I think similarly Fomenko gave a platform for female actors, working with some of the best women in theater.”
It’s true, Kutepova agreed, that Fomenko was exceptionally good with actresses and with roles for women. “He viewed them as muses,” she said, “and they turned him on to the work.”
In “Family Happiness,” which premiered in 2000, Fomenko fragments Tolstoy’s narrative, intercutting past and present, and he introduces humor. But Tolstoy’s pet theme — expressed in the title of the 1859 novella and in the famous first line of “Anna Karenina,” the novel he wrote more than a decade later — remains.
“For Fomenko, the word meant everything: the weight of the words,” Kutepova said. But, she noted, he also understood how to pare words away.
“Sometimes it’s easy for the directors to take a literary text, something that’s not originally made for the theater, and not strip away the text enough and not add enough action. Then it comes out to just be a literary reading of the novel,” she said. “But Fomenko really knew how to work with a text and to turn it into a theatrical production, to add the dynamic.”
“Family Happiness” is performed in Russian with English surtitles, and the actress worries that — as some bilingual acquaintances have told her — the necessarily truncated translations don’t capture the nuances beneath the language.
“If the actor on the stage says yes but means no, or says no but means yes,” she said, “you can only see the word. You don’t see the emotion behind it, so you really have to look to the stage.”
But her costar, Kolubkov, said that signs on opening night were good.
“Yesterday, the public was very responsive in the right way,” he said. “They were thoughtful; they laughed in the right places; they felt in the right places.”