A few nights ago, I attended a performance of a play called Zokya’s Apartment. It was three and a half hours long, which, by American standards, is basically an eternity. By Russian standards, it’s pretty average. It was also in Russian. Which, you may recall, I do not speak. This sounds like the makings of a terrible evening, but it was incredible. I’ll start at the beginning.
We met outside of the Moscow Art Theatre where we were handed our (FREE!) tickets. Then we made our way inside, where we were able to make out just enough Cyrillic to find the coat check, which was a zoo of painfully stylish Russian theatre-goers. When we finally made it to the front of the line, the lady behind the counter started speaking to us angrily in rapid-fire Russian. Which, you may recall, I do not speak. I tried to hand her my bag and coat. She said more angry Russian words. She pointed to my friend next to me. He tried to hand her his bag. She said more angry Russian words. Finally, some miracle occurred and we figured out that she wanted us to check our things together. Coatless and bagless, we embarked upon the next stage of our adventure, finding out seats. This involved a long period of being lost and confused because no one could read the words balcony section on our tickets.
When we finally made it to our seats, making sure to cross in front of people the proper Russian way—with your crotch in their face instead of your butt—I had a minute to really take in exactly where I was. Looking down at the stage below us, it suddenly hit me that Stanislavsky, the father of modern acting technique and basically a patron saint of the theatre, had performed on this stage. When the lights started to go down, I’m not even embarrassed to admit that I found myself crying. I don’t know from experience, but I would venture to say it was a little something like reaching Mecca.
The performance started with something that could have passed for the opening sequence from a 70s James Bond flick. The lead actress was standing against a white wall, surrounded by black projections that seemed to respond to her touch. A line of arrows would chase her as she ran in front of the wall, and when she would touch them on the wall, they would shatter into tiny triangles. Or a black circle would follow her movements like a search light. She was joined by men wearing giant black space helmets who were literally climbing the walls on built-in ladder rungs. This opening sequence, bizarre as it was, was the perfect way to bring the audience into what turned out to be a pretty bizarre play. Even though I understood not a word of the dialogue, the visuals were strong enough that I always felt like I had at least a loose grasp of the story. And despite the language barrier, I found myself laughing loudly and often and sitting on the edge of my seat more than once.
The show ended with the longest curtain call I have ever witnessed. People clapped until the actors came back onto the stage two separate times. People handed flowers to the actors. It was a sort of appreciation for art that I have never seen in America. That appreciation, that sense of theatre as something much more than just a luxury or an entertainment, as something vitally important to society, is one of so many reasons I feel so lucky to be studying here.