On a stage in Kamchatka, flouting government orders

February 3, 2011

IN PETROPAVLOVSK-KAMCHATSKY, RUSSIA abungled attempt to censor a bit of satirical humor on a stage here shows that even in Russia official arrogance can still sometimes run up against limits. And in the process, a fairy tale has been transformed into an allegory.

The company of the only theater in this dismal small city, nestled among the hills of Russia's otherwise spectacular Pacific coast, decided to kick off the new year with its own, updated take on the story of Cinderella.

Zolushka, as Russians know her - a name that might be translated as "Goldie" - was played by the exuberant, golden-tressed and decidedly heavyset Yelena Zorina. The idea, as she cheerfully puts it, was that even fat girls should be allowed to have fun.

The prince wore a brilliant silver outfit and spiked hair; the fairy godmother was in a tight, low-cut top; the stepsisters could best be described as slinky.

It was that kind of production, with a lot of singing and hijinks. It was what Russian actors call a "kapustnik," an informal, let's-put-on-a-show sort of confection that goes back to the late 19th century and the era of Konstantin Stanislavsky, who in his more serious moments devised what American theater people call The Method. In his time, the church forced theaters to close during Lent, so actors would get together with their friends in someone's home and whip up a little theatrical irreverence.

Even the name contains a sly dig: Kapustnik comes from the Russian word for cabbage, because cabbage pie was a staple for those observing the Lenten fast.

Irreverence, it turns out, was a shoe that didn't fit, at least in the eyes of Kamchatka's governor, Alexei Kuzmitsky.

On Jan. 7, which was supposed to have been the next-to-last night of the run, one of his top aides walked across Lenin Street from the regional administration building to the recently renovated theater, and was horrified by what she saw. Two jokes, in particular, offended her.

One had to do with time. Kamchatka has always been nine hours ahead of Moscow. For years, an announcer on Moscow radio would intone at 3 p.m., "It's midnight in Kamchatka." But last year the Kremlin suggested that Kamchatka move its clocks an hour closer to Moscow time, to make communication easier, and Kuzmitsky, who owes his post to a 2007 presidential appointment, immediately agreed.

The change, and especially the way it was brought about, and particularly rumors that another hour's shift might be in the offing, angered just about everyone here. So Andrei Lipeyev, an actor who wrote and staged the kapustnik, loosely adopted from a 1938 play by Yevgeny Shvarts, stuck to the original in having the king move the clock back an hour to allow Zolushka to stay longer at the ball. But this time the fairy godmother scolds him, "What's good in this democracy? You keep changing the time, and nobody likes it!"

It brought down the house.

The other joke had to do with the house itself. The actors hate the renovation. Wind blows through the windows; rain comes through the roof; the turntable on the stage doesn't work. They are sure that a lot of money went missing - not exactly an unusual proposition in Russia today. The original budget for the work on the 500-seat theater was about $10 million, which nearly doubled over the course of the project.

Tatyana Artemyeva, who played the stepmother, says the inside of the auditorium "looks like a shish-kebab affair." People here called the old theater "the Mausoleum," in a sardonic reference to Lenin's tomb. Now they call it "the Crematorium."

In Lipeyev's staging, the king says, "Look at my palace. What a wreck it is!"

Out, said the governor the next day. Out with both jokes. Lipeyev was also told to remove a series of one-liners that sound like double entendres, even though they weren't. Never mind, he was told; they're vulgar. Take them out.

'It's not that easy'

Lipeyev says he couldn't believe it at first. Then the realization that someone in the governor's office would pick up a phone and simply give the company orders hit him, and he didn't like it. "This was a mistake on their part. It's not that easy."

The members of the cast got together and agreed among themselves to present the uncensored version on stage that night. If the theater doors were blocked, they were prepared to go outside to Lenin Street and perform the play in front of the administrative building.

The actors knew that their careers, perhaps even their apartments, were at risk, because the theater is a government-supported institution.

"But if I obeyed," Artemyeva says, "how could I look in the eyes of my partners? How could I go out on the stage again and face the audience?

"I used to work in Soviet times. I would never think anything like that could happen in this day and age."

The show went on. With all the jokes. The local newspapers, under the control of the government, wrote nothing about the affair, but word spread fast anyway - so much so that the theater scheduled an extra performance on Jan. 13. It sold out.

The actors braced for reprisals. The governor had sent a film crew to record their effort - and to gather evidence. But then came help from faraway St. Petersburg. The last elected governor of Kamchatka, a Communist named Mikhail Mashkovtsev, wrote about the attempted censorship on his blog, and soon it was a national story.

"There are many stupid things in the world, but this goes beyond all limits," he said in a recent interview. "Of course the governor had no right to do this - only the right of force. The main thing is, the actors did not obey."

A reflection of Russia

In the face of publicity, Kuzmitsky's administration quickly took a different tack. His aides pointed out that this was all a misunderstanding, that there hadn't been any censorship, that the show had been performed as written. The budget for an upcoming company tour was doubled. Lipeyev was offered a job as stage director, and his wife was given a promotion.

The cast members saw all this as a ham-handed attempt to shut them up. Lipeyev turned down the offer.

Asked for comment, the governor's staff replied with a statement saying that he had ordered an inquiry into the whole business and that its results would be made public.

"It's a reflection of what's going on in Russia today," Artemyeva says. "We didn't want to be political. But the country today - it's not a problem with the people. It's a problem with the authorities."

She believes they'd like to go back to the old Soviet ways. "But you can't roll things back," she says. "Because of the Internet, the news spread all over the country. It quickly got out of the authorities' control. That's why they're so scared."

But the happy ending may not have been written yet. Artemyeva and the other cast members expect that once the controversy has died down, the authorities will come back to them and make them pay.

englundw@washpost.com

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