IN "THE BEAUTIFUL LADY," collaborators Elizabeth Swados and Paul Schmidt have fashioned an ambitious, often thrilling evening of words and music that celebrates the essential importance of the poet to a society. Literary Russia before and after the cataclysmic October Revolution of 1917 provides a rich source of drama and enduring words.
Composer/lyricist/director Swados has chosen the scenic metaphor of the Stray Dog Tavern, the "Elaine's" of St. Petersburg, a cavernous basement that attracted Russia's glitterati, who thought it chic to slum with the impoverished literati.
It is this small but extraordinary clique of poets and patrons that "The Beautiful Lady" limns, the proto-pop stars who gathered to publicly pose and confess in the tavern. Adoring the future and the excitement it promised, some of the poets welcomed the Revolution, hailing it, as a Swados song puts it, as "the beginning of a violent age, a gorgeous rage," unaware that it would destroy them and their cozy decadence.
Swados' scenario is not without contemporary parallels -- the world of the Stray Dog seems strikingly similar to New York's self-indulgent but undeniably creative "art bars" and the nightclubs of Los Angeles that are nurturing a growing "spoken word" movement.
This unconventional musical is not a passive entertainment -- it assumes a good deal of prior knowledge of the period and its poets. But although it's occasionally disorienting -- Swados plunges us headlong into an unfamiliar literary circle without so much as a handshake -- the vivid, vital words of the poets, in contemporary-sounding translations by Schmidt, make their personalities and significance felt.
Swados' delicate, percussive music enhances the diverse structures and styles of poetry without swamping them, from the ecstatic to the tragic, from the quiet classicism of the great Anna Akhmatova, to the furiously rhythmic iconoclasm of the Futurists. And Swados' elegant direction has a briskly Brechtian touch and a poet's gift for compression.
In Akhmatova, the playwrights have found a particularly moving heroine. One of Russia's greatest modern poets, played here with noble dignity by Karen Trott, Akhmatova survived the destruction of her entire circle by the state, channeling her grief into a series of elegant elegies. Also notable among a strong cast are Howard Shalwitz, who plays first Futurist Khlebnikov with a mad gleam, and Daniel Noel as the vigorous Vladimir Mayakovsky, who became the official poet of the Soviet state.
Swados' eloquent benediction, "For a change shall come," movingly sung by the entire cast, is simultaneously heartbreaking and heartening, ending the "The Beautiful Lady" on a note of hope, without false optimism. The "beautiful lady" of the title may be an actual woman, Akhmatova. But she is more likely poetry herself, "the purest madness of all." THE BEAUTIFUL LADY -- At the New Playwrights' Theater through December 30.