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Stages | Terry Byrne

Dead men do tell tales — in Russian

Director Igor Golyak on the set of “A Dead Man’s Diary.”
Director Igor Golyak on the set of “A Dead Man’s Diary.”(Katherine Taylor for The Boston Globe)

When one of Igor Golyak’s acting students brought in a monologue from “A Dead Man’s Diary: A Theatrical Novel,” an unfinished work by Russian novelist and playwright Mikhail Bulgakov, Golyak was intrigued.

“I spread the pages out across the floor in our theater. No one could walk in,” Golyak says, referring to the space at his Needham-based Arlekin Players Theatre. “And then I went through it, pulling scenes together, editing parts out, and thinking about how it could be staged.”

The result is the compelling “A Dead Man’s Diary,” which Arlekin Players staged in Needham last year and is now reprising at the Jackie Liebergott Black Box in the Paramount Center through April 1.

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The story follows Sergey Leontyevich Maksudov, a writer who is frustrated by his inability to get his work published, but is encouraged to turn his novel into a play in the hopes of having it staged by the renowned Moscow Art Theatre. The “theatrical novel,” which remained unfinished at Bulgakov’s death in 1940, offers a unique window into the world of the Moscow Art Theatre, made famous by the legendary director Konstantin Stanislavsky, as seen through the eyes of a writer eager to be a part of that creative scene. It also explores the tension between the vision the writer has for his work and the commercial and political demands that limit or derail him.

“Bulgakov’s novel included experiences from his life, his frustration with political censorship, several sections of his famous play ‘[The] Master and Margarita,’ as well as his experiences with the Moscow Art Theatre, including satiric encounters with characters who actually existed,” Golyak says. “His story really touched me.”

To stage “A Dead Man’s Diary,” Golyak turned to Nikolay Simonov, the current head of set design at the Moscow Art Theatre, and Jakov Jakoulov, a composer whose symphonies and concertos have been performed by the London Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood.

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“We collaborated closely on this,” says Golyak, “because all of the elements needed to come together to make this work.”

The set itself makes the production a unique theatrical experience: it’s a large rectangular box, with seats around the perimeter and window-like frames for the audience to peer through. In the story, Maksudov is inspired by the figurines in the foyer of the Moscow Art Theatre who, he says, come alive and speak to him. The actual foyer of the theater is lined with portraits of the most important theatrical artists in Russian history. The set design creates the impression that members of the audience seen through the frames are stand-ins for those portraits.

“We had to create the impression that we were seeing things through Maksudov’s eyes,” says Golyak.

Because the story reflects Maksudov’s creative process, composer Jakoulov says the music needed to push the action forward, and not simply be incidental.

“The music combines real sounds, like typewriter keys, papers rustling, with operatic episodes and musical burlesque,” he says. “The music sometimes serves as emotional catharsis, at those moments when a strong sentiment is best expressed without words.

All of the actors in the ensemble have been studying with Golyak for at least one year, several for many more.

Golyak, 38, emigrated with his family from the Ukraine in 1990, but went to college in Moscow. “I moved back here after earning my bachelor’s degree in acting and my master’s degree in directing in Moscow, and after working in theaters there,” he says. He opened his acting studio nine years ago.

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The Russian community in and around Boston has embraced the opportunity to study acting in the Stanislavsky method — one that connects physical action to psychological connection. Acting is an avocation for all of them, including the man playing Maksudov, David Gamarnik, whose day job is professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

“The physical nature of the performances, the sounds and the images are meant to create an emotional response to this man, and his creative struggle,” says Golyak.

The company has been performing almost exclusively in Russian. Earpieces that provide simultaneous translation to English are available to audience members.

What it means to be ‘othered’

Nataly Zukerman is an artist with a disability who, according to Israeli Stage artistic director Guy Ben-Aharon, “lives on every breath the audience takes.”

“She has a way of drawing the audience into her world, revealing a whole new way of seeing things,” says Ben-Aharon of his theater’s current artist-in-residence. “We talk a lot about diversity, but rarely about inclusion. Nataly opens up the struggle of being ‘othered’ with honesty and vitality.”

Zukerman will be performing “The Other Body” and “Artability,” and talking about her work at venues around Boston through April 9 (go to www.israelistage.com for a full schedule). At the age of 12, Zukerman sustained a disabling back injury, but because her disability isn’t obvious, she doesn’t fit a stereotype.

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“Twenty percent of Americans have a disability,” Ben-Aharon says. “I think this is the right moment to amplify this conversation.”

In addition to Zukerman’s performances and conversations, she and Boston actor Nael Nacer will collaborate on a devised piece called “Othering,” which will have a workshop production at Bunker Hill Community College on April 9.

“There are lots of people with hyphenated identities,” says Ben-Aharon. “But people arbitrarily attribute an ethnicity based on their own biases. Nael is French and Djiboutian, and with Nataly he’s exploring the struggle of being ‘othered’ and how that affects how you think about yourself.”

Ben-Aharon says he is looking forward to the conversations the artist-in-residence program will spark. “Nataly helps to show us the possibility of pluralism,” he says.

Winans musical coming to Cutler

“Born For This,” a new musical by BeBe Winans with a book by Winans and Charles Randolph-Wright, will play June 15-July 15 at the Cutler Majestic Theatre. The musical, to be directed by Randolph-Wright, tells the true story of BeBe and sister CeCe Winans, who left their musical family in Detroit to join Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s Praise the Lord Network in North Carolina. The show chronicles Bebe’s eventual decision to leave the Bakkers and pursue mainstream acclaim. “Born For This” will be presented by ArtsEmerson, which provided workshop space for the early development of the musical in 2013. Tickets start at $18, go on sale March 25, and are available at www.ArtsEmerson.org or 617-824-8400.

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A DEAD MAN’S DIARY

Presented by the Arlekin Players. At the Jackie Liebergott Black Box, Paramount Center, through April 1. Tickets: $45-$65, 617-824-8400, www.emersontheatres.org


Terry Byrne can be reached at trbyrne@aol.com.