April 26, 2004

Visiting actor stages Russian play at DHHS       

Lailee Mendelson is communications coordinator for the
Office of International Affairs

Revolution, lust, murder and filial conflict—nothing less than these human dramas will be explored April 29–30 when Emory students stage a production of Isaac Babel’s dark comedy Sundown, directed by visiting professor and famed Russian actor Veniamin Smekhov.

The performance, to be held in the Druid Hills High School Auditorium, will be staged in English and is the culmination of a course co-taught by Smekhov and Elena Glazov-Corrigan, associate professor and chair of the Department of Russian and East Asian Languages and Cultures (REALC). Assisting with the production is REALC Lecturer Maria Lunk.

Smekhov is an internationally renowned actor and director of both stage and film whose name is associated with Moscow’s Taganka Theater, founded in 1945. Of the Taganka Theater, Russian President Vladimir Putin once said, “Theaters like Taganka paved the way for a breakthrough to a free, democratic society,” referring to the theater’s resolve in staging experimental productions through the 1960s and ’70s despite its often strained relationship with Soviet authorities.

For the last decade, Smekhov has been working as a director in the United States, Russia and Europe. This is his second spring semester spent at Emory; in 2003 students under his directorship staged a production of Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, which recounts a visit by Satan to Stalin’s Moscow. Smekhov became known for his portrayal of the character Satan/Woland when the play was produced at the Taganka Theater in the 1980s.

Babel’s Sundown was written in 1926 and takes place in the author’s birthplace of Odessa. Set against the pre-revolutionary backdrop of 1913 Russia and often referred to as “the Jewish King Lear,” the play follows Mendel Krik, who at 62 falls in love with a 17-year-old girl and decides to sell his business and abandon his family, setting himself into frightening conflict with his son, Benia.

“The play mirrors the conflict of parents and children that was the habit of the day in revolutionary Russia,” said Glazov-Corrigan. “The parents represented the old world, the children the new.”

Smekhov’s wife, Galina Aksenova, a leading film critic and scholar, also is at Emory this semester teaching a course on East European film in the REALC and film studies departments. She said Babel’s play explores what the author saw as a loss of Jewish heritage and values in czarist Russia.

“By falling in love with a Christian beauty and selling his business,” Aksenova said, “the father wants to betray the Jewish God, along with his Jewish wife and children.

“It is interesting to read the original [Soviet] critics,” she continued. “One noted that Babel had identified quite clearly ‘the problem’: the necessity of destroying old-fashioned household customs, customs based on religious practice. They interpreted Babel’s play as an anthem for the ‘sundown’ of middle-class conventionality.”

Despite such early praise by Soviet critics, by 1929 Sundown had been banned from the stage. Ten years later Babel was accused of being a Trotskyite and a spy, and was executed. For almost 60 years Sundown went unproduced in Russia.

“It was only in the 1990s that the play finally returned to the stage in Russia and throughout the world,” Smekhov said. “Babel was disappointed that, even in the greatest creations of Russian literature, the sun is usually absent. He wanted the sun to burst into the book world of Russia from Odessa, where the hot grasses of the steppe kiss the foamy waves of the Black Sea. Babel the writer realized the dream of Babel the reader, since only in Gogol’s Sorochinskaya Fair can one still find as much of the southern sun as in the play Sundown.”

After the Emory production, Smekhov will return to Moscow where he will perform a series of concerts for Moscow Television.

Performances of Sundown will be held April 29–30 at 7:30 p.m.; an April 28 dress rehearsal, also at 7:30 p.m., is open to the public. Admission is free; to reserve tickets, call 404-727-6427.

For more information on the Sundown production, including excerpts from the student actors’ diaries and thoughts on the play, visit www.emory.edu/REALC/