Reprinted from yesterday's late editions
Arrestingly conceived, "Duck Hunting" at Arena State manage to be at once both remote and immediate. The author is Soviet playwright Alexander Vampilov, being introduced to the English-speaking world in a translation by Alma Law.
On this evidence, Vampilov was a remarkable playwright, and his death at 35 in a 1972 boating accident clearly deprived his generation of a striking voice. He is writing in the Dostoevski tradition of a troubled, self-destructive hero whose predicament and character seem peculiarly Russian.
Law's achievement has been to remove the lingual barrier which so often serves in translations to put glass walls between audience and characters. Thus, while the national characteristics seem remote, the language, staging and performance are immediately absorbing.
As the lights come up on Karl Eigsti's superbly evocative setting - duck decoys above the stage where various rooms will be represented - Zilov lies on a bed, a flower in his hand.Is he dead?
Now he comes to life. A messenger boy arrives with a wreath and ribbon memorializing Zilov. In layer after layer of scenes we will get to know Zilov, his wife, his friends, male and female. We will learn that Zilov has a certain charm and also a brooding rage. His marriage of nine years will collapse. His schoolteacher wife will abort their chance of a child. In office life, he is revealed as lazy, even crooked.
Zilov's life has tarnished his inner being, an effect the playwright achieves by suggesting that a girl student who comes on the scene has the innocent wonder his now tired, bitter wife once had.
We are seeing Zilov's life as he looks back from that room where the funeral wreath remains. As his rattled nerves collapse he seems to have only one firm plan, a duck-hunting trip with Dima, the waiter in his favorite cafe. The night before they are to leave, Zilov gathers his friends and the new young girl in the cafe and insults them all outrageously.
The friends conceive a revenge: They will spread the word that Zilov is dead. Alone in his room, Zilov gets a message from this joke - and plans to finish the joke with his rifle.
Zilov is a wretched, selfish, cruel man. The art of the playwright has been to make him seem human, even universally understandable in the sense that Dostoevski characters are understandable, but above all, Russian.
The effects are achieved through scenes and lines of imaginative theatrically. Outraged at having caught her husband in one more lie, Galina, his wife, refuses to play a game Zilov undoubtedly has tried before. He wants her to playact their first meeting. She can no longer play this game and can only respond "Let me alone" at which he forces the game on her. It suggests scenes husbands and wives have reenacted for generations, but rarely have I seen it so perceptively staged.
The humor has a dry, Slavic cast. Dima, the waiter, sneers at Zilov's markmanship. The ducks, Dima says, are "alive to someone who misses. To a good shot, they're already dead." Soon Zilov will have a loaded rifle in his hands.
The role of Zilov is as long as the play itself, just under three hours, and requires slipping constantly between past and present in the complexity of the play's structure. Stanley Anderson scores a triumph in the part.
Zelda Fichandler's staging is her finest work, flowing through Eigsti's contributive design and Hugh Lester's striking lighting with almost unobtrusive command.
In the supporting group of nine actors there is not a weak link, with Joanne Hrkach making a lovely debut at Arena as the young student. Halo Wines suggests the disappointed wife's varied experiences in the silences of her face. John Madden Towey, as Zilov's office friend; George Clark Hosmer, as another friend, and Mark Hammer, as their boss, are effective and so, especially, is Clarence Felder as the worldly waiter.
"Duck Hunting" is not assimilated easily or quickly, but it is a teasingly equivocal, constantly arresting play.