It’s hardly the first time a masked ball has led to tragic consequences. But in Mikhail Lermontov’s Masquerade, the masks are metaphorical ones “that people use to conceal their true nature,” according to Rimas Tuminas, who has been artistic director of the Vakhtangov State Academic Theater of Moscow since 2007. From June 13 to 16, the Cherry Orchard Festival is bringing the Vakhtangov to New York City Center for the fourth time with Tuminas’ Masquerade.
New York audiences will recall Tuminas’ stunningly original Eugene Onegin in 2014 and his Uncle Vanya in 2017. “Oh, what pretty pictures torment makes,” Laura Collins-Hughes wrote of Onegin in The New York Times, and a production video suggests theatregoers can expect the same sweet torture from Masquerade.
In a sense, Lermontov’s 1835 verse play is a Russian Othello, with a bracelet standing in for Desdemona’s handkerchief. The protagonist, another Eugene/Yevgeny, is a middle-aged man who chafes against the conventions of St. Petersburg society. In the course of four acts, events set in motion at the titular soiree snowball—quite literally—into a consuming jealousy that does not end well for Nina, Eugene’s wife.
Tuminas’ production, which had its premiere in Moscow in 2010, sets light against darkness, aristocracy against peasantry, high drama against farce. The play’s romance is underscored by a dance of death: Aram Khachaturyan’s evocative Masquerade Waltz, composed as incidental music for the Vakhtangov’s 1941 production.
“Of course, it might be enough to simply recreate an authentic St. Petersburg masquerade ball,” Tuminas tells Playbill. “But to me, historical accuracy is the enemy of theatricality. It’s anti-theatrical, I’d say. Principles of theatrics are meant to protect the chasm between reality and fantasy in order to create a celebration of life, a celebration of theatre.”
Vakhtangov’s founder, Yevgeny Vakhtangov, was an actor and teacher in Konstantin Stanislavksi’s legendary Moscow Art Theater school. In 1920 he opened his own small theatre within the school, and a year later his theatre moved to its permanent home on the Arbat in the city’s historic center.
Vakhtangov is often credited alongside Stanislavski as a progenitor of method acting. Today his theatre is a repertory house presenting several shows a week—and not just Russian classics. This season’s lineup ranges from Diary of a Madman to Oedipus to Madame Bovary, with children’s shows in between.
Bringing the classics into the 21st century is part of the Vakhtangov’s mission. “What can be better than Pushkin, Lermontov, Chekhov, Gogol?” Tuminas wrote. “In Russian classical dramaturgy, there is a moment of catharsis, and everyone is striving to find harmony through catharsis.”
“There is a common thread connecting the past and future artistic realms, and unifying themes in classic stories,” he added. “We constantly search for new meanings and new opportunities in classic text, and we try to own the work, and not become enslaved by it. Each of us wants to bring our personal experience into the play, to win the race against time and leave a legacy. But our principal position is to stay true to the author’s work. Without facing our past, we cannot step into tomorrow.”
Diane Nottle, formerly an editor on the culture news desk of The New York Times, is a Manhattan-based writer, editor, and educator.