Famed Russian director joins this year's Colorado Shakespeare Festival at CU-Boulder

Published: June 21, 2011

A famed Russian director will direct one of four plays to be offered at this summer's Colorado Shakespeare Festival at the University of Colorado Boulder, including two bilingual performances.

The eight members of the Maxim Gorky Theatre in Vladivostok will work alongside Americans in a production of "The Inspector General" by Nikolai Gogol, one of the season's two non-Shakespearean productions.

It's part of a cultural exchange program that Philip Sneed, the producing artistic director of the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, says enriches both acting companies and enhances the experience of American audiences.

For two performances of "The Inspector General," four Russian actors will speak their lines in Russian, while the Americans will speak English. Sneed has produced similar bilingual shows in California and Russia and said audiences in both locales "loved it" and the performances sold out.

Both the Russian audiences and the California audiences said they were surprised by how much they understood. "They realized how much actors speak in a language that's nonverbal," Sneed notes.

Efim Zvenyatskiy, the producing artistic director of the Gorky who will direct "The Inspector General," has received the highest state honors in Russia and recognition in Western Europe. Speaking through an interpreter, Zvenyatskiy agreed that actors communicate with more than language.

Sneed and Zvenyatskiy have collaborated for 17 years and have produced six projects: three in Russia and three in America. In Russia, Sneed once performed the part of Hamlet in English, and a fellow American played Gertrude, while the rest of "Hamlet" was done in Russian.

"It worked without any translation," Zvenyatskiy says. "It's very interesting."

Both Sneed and Zvenyatskiy note that Gogol, the Russian playwright, is not as well known in America as Anton Chekhov, who is sometimes viewed as dreary. Gogol, on the other hand, wrote in the pre-realistic period, before Freud and Chekhov. The characters in "The Inspector General" resemble caricatures on television sitcoms, Sneed says.

"That's not a bad thing, especially when it comes to farce." Sneed said.

For Russians, the play has a special resonance. "It speaks to more than a thousand years of oppression," Sneed said. But, he adds, "We're not free of those things, either."

During the summer, the Shakespeare festival's staff, actors and directors will work with and learn from their Russian counterparts, and vice versa. The Russians are interested in "best practices" in American theater.

Sneed says Americans can learn from Russian actors, who spend a lot more time relating to the physical environment on the set, adding depth and nuance to performances.

Zvenyatskiy, meanwhile, says Russian actors tend to act "longer," while American actors tend to act faster. "I think both of us should be somewhere in the middle."

Sneed adds, "There is no better way for human beings to understand one another than to work closely together in an art such as theater. Within a remarkably short period of time, individuals begin to understand one another's working styles. Differences of culture are set aside to achieve a common goal, and even language is no barrier. Stereotypes that rob us of our common humanity are set aside. That is the value of cultural exchange."

The cultural exchange program also includes a university class in the Stanislavsky theory of physical action offered through CU's Division of Continuing Education and Professional Studies.

The Maxim Gorky Theatre is the largest and most influential in Eastern Russia. Founded in 1932, the theater is famous for its acting and directing talent and as an educational resource. Its repertoire includes world classics, Russian classics and contemporary plays by Russian and foreign playwrights.

The cultural exchange program is funded by a private grant.

This summer, the Colorado Shakespeare Festival is performing "Romeo and Juliet," "The Comedy of Errors," "The Little Prince" and "The Inspector General." Opening night is June 25, and the season runs through mid-August. The bilingual performances of "The Inspector General" are scheduled for July 15 and 16. For more information see www.coloradoshakes.org. For more information on the Gorky Theatre see www.gorkytheater.ru.

Efim Zvenyatskiy, producing artistic director of the Maxim Gorky Theatre in Vladivostok, Russia, with part of the set for "The Inspector General." (Photo by Glenn Asakawa/University of Colorado)