On a stage in Kamchatka, flouting government orders

Map of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, Russia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 2, 2011; 7:03 PM

PETROPAVLOVSK-KAMCHATSKY, RUSSIA -- A bungled 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.

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