A three-hour, three-act play set during the Russian Revolution about a dissident director and actor virtually unknown to American audiences may not seem like everyone’s idea of a good time. But Shotgun’s production of Mark Jackson’s new play The Death of Meyerhold is a phenomenal piece of work, full of passion, humor, history, well-integrated staging, and emotional truth made all the more powerful by the stylization of the performances.
The Death of Meyerhold follows enfant terrible Vsevolod Emilovich Meyerhold’s career from 1898 until his death at the hands of Stalin’s security forces in 1940. Communist, artist, patriot: Meyerhold was unbending in his pursuit of a new form of theater that would inspire and educate the masses. He supported many innovations that survive to this day. He was a big one for breaking the fourth wall, for example, the imaginary chasm that divides actors from audience. Jackson has Meyerhold do this early in the first act, and it’s hysterical; the other characters onstage are horrified. (“What are you doing?” they hiss). After leaving his teacher, Meyerhold went on to develop an acting methodology he called “biomechanics.” While it drew on some of the other forms he had studied (notably pantomime, Kabuki, and commedia dell’-arte) biomechanics was something entirely new — and controversial — in Russian theater. Old-school actors of a realistic bent were known to dismiss Meyerhold’s techniques as unnecessarily physical, saying things like “I’m an actor, not an acrobat.”
You don’t need to be a theater artist to appreciate this play’s depiction of the theoretical break between the teacher, Stanislavski, and his pupil, Meyerhold. Put simply and broadly, there are a few different ways for an actor to approach the development of a character. The classical model, handed down to us from the Greeks, focuses on a rigid adherence to the structure of verse. Stanislavski cast aside this declamatory model — the heightened voices, stilted staging, and patently false gestures — in favor of a naturalistic process of character development that created a huge scandal. Actors with their backs and butts to the audience! Actors making eye contact with and speaking their lines to each other. The horror! Stanislavski’s ideas come to us today as Method acting, which serves as the basis of most Western actor training in one form or another. In the Stanislavski model, the actor creates the character from the inside out by being the character, down to the emotions, thoughts, and physical tics.
Meyerhold tried this and didn’t like it. He had a bad moment where he could not separate from his character and was traumatized by the experience. So he set out to create a third way, a way of building character from the outside in, leading to a “Theater of the Grotesque” where “grotesque” stood for heightened dramatic experience. Toward that end, Meyerhold created a set of what he called “etudes,” highly refined and exaggerated movement sequences with names such as “The Horse and Rider” and “Stabbing with the Dagger.”
Jackson has cleverly worked quite a bit of this theory into his blocking. One of the etudes gets used to great comic effect when company member Samoilov begs Meyerhold to give him meatier roles. “I want to act! I want to act!” cries the drunken Samoilov; the accompanying movement is the etude known as “The Leap on the Chest.” A similar thing happens later when the composer Shostakovich has a panic attack in Meyerhold’s flat. Crawling on both horizontal and vertical surfaces like a gecko, Kevin Clarke recalls a photo from Meyerhold’s production of The Magnanimous Cuckold (which we’ve conveniently already seen being rehearsed). Jackson also has integrated Meyerholdian aesthetics into the set design, and in his use of cinematic projections to delineate time and place. It sounds like a joke for insiders, but it’s surprisingly accessible.
If Meyerhold had so much of an influence on the course of modern theater, why is his name so unfamiliar? The answer is part of the tragedy of his life, and boils down to two reasons. The first reads like Orwell’s 1984: After his execution in 1940, Meyerhold was virtually erased. It would take sixteen years — and the death of Stalin — for Meyerhold’s work to be publicly taught and discussed once again. The second reason is that Meyerhold’s theory has become thoroughly identified with other dramatists such as Bertolt Brecht. He developed his famous “alienation effect” after hearing a description of Meyerhold’s method for making his productions larger than life. His influence also is visible on students such as filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein and Erast Garin, who would go on to teach the Meyerhold method after the latter’s “rehabilitation.” Even contemporary British director Peter Brook acknowledges a debt of gratitude to Meyerhold.
Meyerhold’s virtual disappearance from history is all the more striking in light of the importance of theater in Russia, a point that Jackson makes in an amusing scene in the third act where we meet the actors of the Group Theatre in New York. The Group Theatre gave us director Lee Strasberg, playwright Clifford Odets, and such luminaries as Elia Kazan and Stella Adler, all of whom we meet in a bar, greeting their comrade Harold Clurman, who just visited the Meyerhold Theater. Jackson has Clurman talk about what he’s seen in a recent trip to Russia, where actors are guaranteed employment and “four weeks paid vacation!” every year.
After the revolution of 1917, the arts in Russia were given the kind of state support unimaginable in the West. But there was a trade-off. Under this system, each theater’s artistic director had two assistants — one of whom had to be a member of the Communist Party. Theaters had to tread cautiously and make sure that their work supported revolutionary ideals as Stalin understood them. In the late 1930s, Meyerhold fell from favor with Stalin, although, interestingly enough, he was once the only artistic director of a state theater who actually belonged to the Party. A series of incendiary anonymous editorials in Pravda denounced him and his theater as retrograde, and rumors (later invalidated) were spread that he was a monster to work with. His theater was shut, and eventually there was the knock on the door in the middle of the night — leading to this play’s most amazing death scene.
While the monster rumors were apparently falsified, that’s not to say that Meyerhold wasn’t a difficult person, headstrong, and willfully blind. Letting the actress Maria Babanova go and favoring his less-talented wife Zinaida Raikh when he was casting his plays are two good examples. And of course there is the greater blindness, the belief that his record as a soldier in the Red Army, a good Communist, and a theatrical hero would shield him from the capriciously paranoid Stalin. It’s a complex part, and Shotgun newcomer Cassidy Brown steps out of the Willows shadows to play Meyerhold with real substance.
The other performances are uniformly excellent. Richard James Louis is a natural as Stanislavski, whom we encounter several times over a forty-year period; James captures the passage of time beautifully, trembling hands and all. There are too many exceptional moments from other cast members to catalogue or even absorb in one viewing — Clive Worsley’s sardonic, doomed Mayakovsky, Dave Maier as a Red prisoner in a White army prison cell explaining that every revolution has some growing pains, and the hilarious Beth Wilmurt’s portrayal of Babanova’s audition for Meyerhold’s theater are particularly noteworthy.
With The Death of Meyerhold, the Shotgunners completely validate their habit of taking big risks. This is a tremendous achievement for them, easily the best thing they’ve done yet — and one of the best plays on a local stage in years. It also shows Jackson, the founding artistic director of San Francisco’s Art Street Theatre, coming into his own as a playwright and as a director with a work that deserves to see much wider distribution. Don’t miss this one.