“Wherever I go, I’m traveling to my funeral,’’ a character in “Smile at Us, Oh Lord’’ remarks, his tone somewhere between doleful and matter of fact. “All life is a long or short road to the cemetery.’’
As that line suggests, an elegiac mood suffuses this fascinating production by the Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre of Russia, which unfolds in dreamlike fashion, with flashes of humor, as it traces a journey across Lithuania by three Jewish friends at the start of the 20th century.
Under the auspices of ArtsEmerson, “Smile at Us, Oh Lord’’ has arrived at the Cutler Majestic Theatre for a lamentably brief run that ends Saturday. It should be noted that there’s nothing brief about the production itself: At three hours and 20 minutes, including intermission, it would benefit from a bit of pruning.
But Vakhtangov artistic director Rimas Tuminas, who directs “Smile at Us, Oh Lord’’ from his own adaptation of “A Kid for Two Farthings,’’ by Lithuanian-Israeli novelist and playwright Grigory Kanovich, has fashioned a production that is visually and emotionally compelling enough that time does not drag for the most part. (Tuminas was also the guiding force behind Vakhtangov’s “Eugene Onegin,’’ presented by ArtsEmerson at the Cutler Majestic last year). A huge additional asset is Faustas Latenas’s music, which ranges from lyrical underscoring to suddenly crashing chords that reverberate through the theater like the soundtrack to the end of the world.
The three friends buffeted by fate are Ephraim Dudak, a stonecutter, portrayed by Sergei Makovetskiy (who alternates in performance with Vladmir Simonov); Avner Rosenthal, a grocer-turned-pauper, played by Viktor Sukhorukov; and Shmule-Sender Lazarek, a water carrier portrayed by Evgeny Knyazev (alternating with Aleksei Guskov).
The impetus for their trip in Shmule-Sender’s horse-drawn cart is a grim one: Ephraim’s son, caught up in anti-czarist passion, has tried to assassinate the Vilnius Governor-General. The son now faces exile or execution, and the father is determined to see him one last time. So he and his companions leave their shtetl and head for Vilnius, encountering along the way a man, played by Pavel Popov, whose journey is also freighted with meaning: He is headed for Jerusalem.
During their travels, sundry misadventures befall them. Their horse is stolen, they are attacked by wolves, they are stopped by an aggressive army officer intent on rounding up recruits. Ephraim and Shmule-Sender remain stoic, but a lifetime’s accumulated weight of sorrow seems to oppress Avner, whose emotions, movingly communicated by Sukhorukov, are closer to the surface.
The achievement of “Smile at Us, Oh Lord,’’ which is presented in Russian with English supertitles, is that it feels both specific and allegorical. The trio’s travails seem rooted in their own time and place while also serving as a microcosmic foretaste of the vast suffering that awaited Jews further on down the road in the 20th century.
SMILE AT US, OH LORD
Adapted by Rimas Tuminas from Grigory Kanovich’s novel “A Kid for Two Farthings’’
Directed by Rimas Tuminas
Music, Faustas Latenas
Set, Adomas Jacovskis. Costumes, Aleksandra Jacovskite. Lights, Maya Shavdatuashvili and Alexander Matveev. Sound, Vadim Bulikov.
Production by Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre of Russia. Presented by Cherry Orchard Festival and Arts Emerson, at Cutler Majestic Theatre, Boston.
Through Saturday. 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.org
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.