Russian culture: A theater critic recounts an underground theatrical performance put on for a limited audience in Moscow

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Meduza on
limited audience in Moscow

Despite the coronavirus lockdown, directors Vasily Berezin and Vsevolod Lisovsky put on an underground theatrical performance of two plays in front of limited audiences in Moscow last month. The double bill featured Berezin’s play Eden, Eden Eden, based on the novel by French writer Pierre Guyotat, and Lisovsky’s play Sex as Utopia. The performance had an audience of about 20 people. In a special dispatch for Meduza, theater critic Alla Shenderova recounts how it went.

I violated quarantine. I was at the theater. Without the velvet backdrop and tickets; just handwritten programs, a small room, and a roof with holes in it (the performance was inside of an abandoned squat on Moscow’s Rozhdestvensky Boulevard).

We arrived one by one — to be more precise, we ran across the empty boulevard. To be even more precise, along its edges (the boulevard itself is still cordoned off with red tape).

At the entrance, everyone was met by Vasily Berezin, the director behind The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which was performed in an old depot popular among homeless people near Moscow’s Kursky Railway Station. Berezin is a director, hooligan, and the founder of the Binary Biotheater, as well as a participant in the young directors festival “Eto vam ne teatr” [which can be translated as, “This is not a theater for you”]. Berezin’s eyes were hidden behind overgrown bangs. In place of a greeting, he shook them abruptly and sent the arrivees upstairs. On the fifth floor, director Vsevolod Lisovsky handed out handwritten programs, masks, and little, yellow stickers. The handwritten leaflets displayed the names of the two plays: Sex as Utopia (that’s Liskovsky’s) and Eden, Eden, Eden (Berezin’s).

Inside the program — where the names of the actors are usually written — there is also an inscription. One three letter word, written horizontally.

It’s difficult to imagine that the wild general (a name he gave himself) and the commissar behind the project “Transformator”, Vsevolod Lisovsky, is being so careful with people, although a corresponding decree has yet to come down from the Culture Ministry. The chairs have already been staggered, checkerboard style.

There were few of us, 20 people, almost all were strangers. Having grown unaccustomed to one and other, people walked around the small room, carefully avoiding others. Everyone was excited, simply from seeing so many of their own kind.

Finally, Lisovsky managed to get everyone seated. He sat down, too. He instructed the audience to wear the masks not over our noses, but over our eyes; for spectators to stick the little, yellow stickers to a part of our bodies that we were prepared to offer to the performers for physical contact. He allowed us to rearrange the sticker.

Two girls arrived, naked underneath medical jumpsuits. Approaching a blue screen, they began to unfasten the zippers, but we were instructed to close our eyes.

Lisovsky talked about what unites theater and sex — the fact that doing it is stupid, but you continue to do it anyway. While he spoke, one of the performers stroked the sticker on my forehead. Then a voice rang out (Nyu Simakina was singing) — it rang like ice in the cold hall, where there was no ceiling, just a roof full of holes.

Lisovsky philosophized about the the utopian nature of sex (you’re looking for closeness, you go inside another — and its not there), the performers gently stroked my shoulder (I moved the sticker). The mask prevented you from understanding how naked they were. The singing sounded so angelic that nothing could take away from it, not even the commissar’s words, complaining that he is getting old and already has to think about what to do after sex, about not becoming a serial killer.

The cold, multiplied by the pandemic, set such an ascetic (to avoid saying sublime) tone, that I didn’t dare try to cheat and secretly take a peek. When everyone was allowed to open their eyes, the performers were already in their spacesuits. The spectators, as in the beginning, were sitting in buttoned up coats and jackets. A pigeon flew through a hole in the roof. Nyu Simakina, who was singing for us, sat with a satisfied expression, as if she had been well-fed.

Lisovsky, a former Moscow conceptual artist in the 1990s, two time winner of the “Golden Masks” award, and the author of the longest promenade performance (“Skvoz’” or, in English, “Through”), as well as last season’s most unusual production (his “GEC-2 Opera”), turned out to be true to himself. He declared that he had come up with something unusually mundane, but it turned out to be the opposite.

After the intermission the chairs were rearranged and everyone was invited to sit like in a normal theater. But we sat one seat apart anyway. Konstantin Losev played the trumpet (he and Vasily Berezing wrote the music). Drowning him out, actor Alexander Kurlov read the text of Pierre Guyotat’s novel Eden, Eden, Eden (a scandalous novel, which I think has never been performed in Russian, in which sex is so inseperable from blood and violence that the word “sadism” is aptly renamed “guillotism”). He read it without intonation, you could even say he mumbled, while staring at a phone screen. Half-naked, actor Nikita Elizarov came out in a ballet tutu, he replaced the warmly dressed Kurlov and began to dance. Then, dressed in a thin white robe, the counter tenor Ariel sang a cappella. Between these numbers a live chicken flew into the hall and, seeing how many people were there, made its way into a corner and hid in a pile of rags, out of fear.

The second act, like the first, went on for almost an hour. And it ended as unexpectedly as it began. We clapped and split up, as quickly and timidly as we had arrived. Out on the street I rubbed my hands with sanitizer.

I have yet to get sick. After a dose of art I feel much better. And I am ready to write many words. About Berezin and Lisovsky. About the fact that they are violators and mystifiers. About the show, which in their case is difficult to distinguish from performance art. About theater, which can be called immersive and participatory. Theater in which, as in the best examples of modern art, the audience is given external impressions, and everyone experiences their own performance.

Simply put, this art is very easy to understand. But each person understands it to the extent of their own depravity.

I don’t know what happened to the chicken. Lisovsky says that it was not harmed.


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