‘A lucky combination of circumstance. An event that was waiting to happen.” That is how Princeton University professor of Slavic languages and literature Caryl Emerson explains the converging events that have brought about a gigantic cooperative production of the world premiere of the play “Boris Godunov,” originally written in 1825 by Alexander Pushkin, with music by Sergei Prokofiev written for a proposed but never realized production in 1936, the “brainchild” of the innovative Russian director Vsevolod Meyerhold.
“Our first piece of luck was that Simon Morrison (Princeton associate professor of music) was working on the Prokofiev archives and was in touch with the composer’s heirs.” When Emerson heard that they had given permission to use the music, she says, “I got excited because I wrote my dissertation on this play, and I’ve been thinking about it for 35 years.” In addition to the British translation by Antony Wood that is the credited text for this production, a new translation by American James Falen, emeritus professor from the University of Tennessee, was published last year and has proved very useful in preparing this production.
Finally this chunk of Russian history will have an English language outing. The play focuses on the intertwined fates of Godunov and Dimitri, the pretender, who will usurp the throne once Boris is gone. A political play, it is not without allusions to power plays throughout history — as Emerson describes it, “being in power and wondering if it mattered how you got there.” Gruesome murders and doing whatever-it-takes to win the top spot are the order of the day.
Not only is the story filled with conspiracy, betrayals, and murders, so is the history of Pushkin’s play. Finally, in 1936, more than a 100 years after the play was written, Meyerhold worked diligently to mount a production. First there were censors, then delays. Then under the Stalinist regime, Meyerhold was arrested, charged with treason, and a year later, shot. Talk about drama and intrigue. Fortunately, he left copious notes.
An unbelievable number of Princetonians are working on this project, which has grown to include a stage production complete with orchestral and choral accompaniment, a scholarly symposium, and a special library exhibit. The play with music is directed by Tim Vassen, a lecturer in the program in theater and dance with a cast of 13 students playing 36 roles. The historical drama/comedy will play at the Berlind Theater at McCarter for four performances, Thursday through Saturday, April 12 through 14. The production is a collaboration between the university and the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art. Also integral to the production are the university orchestra and the university chamber choir.
Vassen worked with Emerson and dramaturg Michael Cadden (director of the program in theater and dance at Princeton) to build the script they are using. “I’m the Pushkinist in the group. I was watching every word with a hawk’s eye,” Emerson says. “We don’t want some word coming from an American student that no one can understand. But on the other hand, Pushkin is Russia’s greatest poet and you don’t want to start messing around with his words.”
I watched their first rehearsal on the abstract set designed by graduate students in Princeton’s School of Architecture. Actors moved, twisted, and navigated a forest of bungee cords that keep the set constantly moving. Vassen was staging the coronation of Boris. A semester class project, Emerson tells me that the set began traditionally but evolved into something much more abstract.
This is not the first time that Morrison has tapped disparate pools of talent at Princeton to bring a nearly-lost piece of Russian art to life. Just two years ago he brought “The Steel Step,” a long-forgotten Prokofiev ballet, to life with the help of choreographers, dancers, and musicians, and set designers from the university community. (U.S. 1, April 6, 2005).
Emerson had arrived late for our interview, riding her bicycle through the rain but quickly corralled three student actors to tell me about their work on the play. We clustered together in a dressing room just off stage. The students enthusiastically told me about their roles in the production. Roger Mason, a junior with a major in English plus certificates in African American studies and theater and dance, plays the role of Pimen, a monk. Mason describes his character, saying that there are two sides to Pimen, a peaceful, submissive worshiper of God and also a fervent speaker of the truth. “In the play, Pushkin has him speak out about the past (Godunov’s reign) as a way of remedying the present,” says Mason.
Pushkin was influenced by Shakespeare’s plays, which he read in translation. “Boris Godunov” reflects a lot of “Macbeth.” As Emerson terms it, “guilt with ghosts that come alive.” She adds, “And the opening scene is right from ‘Julius Caesar.’ There are certain plot structures or contours that are taken from Shakespeare, even lines taken directly from ‘Henry IV.’”
Most of the play is written in iambic pentameter but the comedy scenes “suddenly collapse into prose,” says Emerson. One of those comic segments features Kelechie Ezie, a junior history major with a certificate in theater, who plays the hostess of the tavern. She also transforms herself to play another character, this one male: the challenging role of Basmanov, the head commander in Boris’ army. In this role, she has a quick character turnaround — first proudly assuming this leadership honor not usually given to someone who is not of noble blood and promising fealty to protect Boris’ son and heir. “In the very next scene, he realizes he has to betray Boris and join the pretender Dimitri, who has the popular support. Playing a man — that’s very cool. I’ve never done that before,” says the beautiful young Ezie.
Emerson describes the scene: “People are assembled from poor to landed gentry. This is a big example of the nature of this play: learn how to give anybody what they want to hear as a way of getting ahead politically.”
Sophomore Lily Cowles plays the “bewitcher” Marina, a Polish girl who is the love interest of many men, including the Pretender Dimitri. Tall with long blond hair and large blue eyes, playing the much-desired inamorata isn’t a stretch for her. However, the significant thing about this character is that unlike most noble women of the 16th century, Marina is described by Emerson as “an incredibly empowered woman in charge of her own destiny.” Marina is also playing for power, deciding who will be the lover who can also further her own ambitions. Cowles says, “She’s a fun character to play and the bungees on the set add to the excitement and add freedom.” She says they allow her to create tensions, move them around, rearrange them, and let them snap back — all physicalizations of her character’s objectives.
Cowles explains the concept that director Vassen has chosen based on the work of Vsevolod Meyerhold. “We’re doing this whole Meyerholdian take on this play, kind of physical, with huge body language, not at all small, Method work. It is interesting to play such a historical play and at the same time try to make something large and abstract.”
It is also challenging to work with the musical underscoring. Emerson says that it is interesting the way the play is written very prophetically cinematic. “The music just adds to that.” Cowles adds, “What’s great about this play is that it’s opening up Russia to all of us. Whoa! So unlike anything I’ve ever known in my life.”
Emerson wants to make sure I hear about the other role that Cowles plays, that of the Holy Fool. She has been quite impressed with the actress’ transformation into this character, who roams the land in rags, has the gift of prophesy, yet with the protection of superstition is allowed as the Holy Fool to speak truth to tyrants. Emerson tells me that at a run-through of the play for alumni, “I was so amazed.” To Cowles, she urges, “Show how you do it. You can’t believe how those eyes carry.” Good naturedly, Cowles obliges.
Theater is clearly in Cowles’ blood, Her mother is actress Christine Baranski (yes, the eyes have it), who is widely known for the TV show Cybil. Matthew Cowles, her father, has also done film and television, including nearly seven years on “All My Children.” Their daughter, however, doesn’t plan to go into the “family business,” but rather dreams of working for National Geographic. “My dream, dream job would be to be a paleontologist, but I don’t have the math in me.”
Says Emerson: “One thing I’ve come to understand working with these talented undergrads is that they see things, understand and embody them, I would say 4 to 5 million times faster than I. It’s a hard play to do but these kids grasp it. They react fast and deep.”
In spite of the play’s being “hard” to do, Emerson feels that it is a good play for young people. She remembers something that Meyerhold said about “Boris:” “I want everyone on stage to look like they are a warrior who just got down off a horse, that kind of youthful energy.” She thinks Meyerhold would be pleased with this production. “They wiped the floor with me when I first heard this in the rehearsal hall. This just goes to show that one of the more effective ways to communicate is drama.”
Through the dressing room door that is ajar, we hear a resounding, “Long live Tsar Boris.”
Boris Godunov, Thursday through Saturday, April 12 to 14, Princeton University Theater and Dance Program, Berlind Theater, University Place. World premiere of Alexander Pushkin’s 1825 historical drama. $15. 609-258-2787.