Little Tragedies Looking for Big Successes

The audience gathers just before opening night of "Little Tragedies" at the Baryshnikov Arts Center.

The audience gathers just before opening night of "Little Tragedies" at the Baryshnikov Arts Center.

BY ZACHARY SNIDERMAN

Pushkin Square in Moscow is one of the busiest intersections in Russia. It is watched over by a statue to its namesake, Alexander Pushkin, the 19th century writer called “The Shakespeare of Russia.”

In New York, he is basically unknown.

This was one of several obstacles for Julian Lowenfeld, the director, composer, and translator of “Little Tragedies,” Pushkin’s collection of one-act plays. The show opened Nov. 3 at the Baryshnikov Arts Center on Manhattan’s West 37th Street.

It marked the third time in as many years that Pushkin’s works have been brought to the stage in New York, a testament not only to his relevance for the more than 80,000 Russian immigrants who call the city home, but also to his potential appeal for a wider audience. 

Lowenfeld billed his effort as the first “unadulterated” version of Pushkin’s “Little Tragedies”. But lacking star actors and a well-known writer, it is opening at the tail end of a recession that has battered Broadway.

Born to nobility in 1799, during the peak of the age of romanticism, Pushkin spent his short life writing. He helped pioneer the use of colloquial, vernacular phrasing in Russian literature and was associated with literary radicals devoted to social reform. His most famous works are the play “Boris Godunov,” and two long-form poems, “The Bronze Horseman” and “Eugene Onegin.” He died in 1837 after being shot in a duel.

But the challenge of translating his complex verse has always been a reason for his obscurity in the West.

“It’s so hard to translate,” said Leah Shamalov, a spokesman for the Russian American Foundation—a New York-based Russian arts non-profit unaffiliated with the show. “You can get the words but you can’t get the feeling. You lose something when you translate.”

For some Russian New Yorkers, like Timur Kalimov, reading Pushkin brings them home. Kalimov, a 23-year-old at the consulting firm McKinsey & Co., said he still only reads Pushkin in Russian.

“It’s difficult to imagine getting everything right the way [Pushkin] did,” he said. “Actually, it’s impossible.”

That was Lowenfeld’s challenge with “Little Tragedies”.

The show is made up of four one-act plays each set in a different country during a different century—each interlocked by the themes of death and heredity. From a French knight hoarding gold from his heir, the play jumps to the composers Mozart and Salieri discussing genius and artistic legacy in Vienna. The second act pits Don Juan against a statue brought to life in a Madrid cemetery. The show ends in 17th century England as young revelers cope with the affects of the bubonic plague.

A Pushkin scholar who pushed out a translated collection of Pushkin’s poetry in 2004, Lowenfeld said after he finished with translating these plays he endured the standard “500 rejections” before pitching the script to Mikhail Baryshnikov himself. The renowned Russian dancer agreed to let him have a performance space, he said.

Lowenfeld took over the translation and directing job in order to preserve Pushkin’s verse and style.

“This is the official, unadulterated version [of “Little Tragedies”],” he said. “Pushkin has been a PhD topic, a thesis topic but his poetry, his passion, don’t work in footnotes.”

Just as Shakespeare, it is often said, is meant to be performed, Lowenfeld believes that Pushkin’s poetry is similarly meant for the stage.

But the disconnect caused by translation has actually helped fill in seats. Just before the opening curtain, Elena Liarsky and Viktor Ivanov sat next to a group of boisterous teens chatting in Russian. Liarsky, a teacher from the Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the United Nations, brought her Russian-speaking students to the show to hear and see their Pushkin in a new light. “They all know him from [the] Russian. We wanted to see it for the language.”

Shamalov, who immigrated to Ohio when she was 11, said she hopes this can help introduce the children of Russian immigrants who are not as familiar with Pushkin or only speak English. “I hope it does bring in younger Russian children and the American masses as well.”

“Little Tragedies” has 14 shows in two weeks. Lowenfeld said he managed to secure funding from Russian arts non-profits and about 100 grass-roots donations, individually as little as $20.

“People use the recession as an excuse for not doing something,” Lowenfeld said. “You can’t put passion on hold because of the recession.”

The show became a reality after rehearsing for two and a half months in Lowenfeld’s Upper West Side apartment and receiving the performance space pro-bono from the Baryshnikov Arts Center.

With a cast of nine actors, including Lowenfeld, and at $18 a ticket, the opening performance packed the 200-seat Howard Gilman Theater. The different sets were created with movable curtains, boxes, and a piano. The actors rotated roles and costumes to fill out each play’s roster of characters.

Lowenfeld plans to take the production to a larger stage. This decision is based, however, on the success of this two-week run. But Lowenfeld insisted that the money was secondary to sharing Pushkin with America.

“It is totally wrong that a gem of such beauty, passion and joy should be denied us,” he said.

Photo — Zachary Sniderman

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