'The Ball': Beauty in a Single Breath
By John Freedman
Every once in a while a show comes along that looks almost perfect. Great costumes, excellent performances, snappy directing, crisp writing, refreshing music, the works. One of those bright, entertaining shows that, as Russians say, you watch in a single breath.
The Novy Drama Theater's production of "The Ball," Pyotr Gnedich's play about social maneuvering complicated by love and embezzlement in the court of Peter the Great, is just such a show. Beautiful, buoyant and funny, it has the clarity and color of a masterful folk painting.
Director Andrei Sergeyev is a designer by profession, his only directing experience coming as an occasional right-hand man to Boris Lvov-Anokhin, who, in the middle of a storied career spanning four decades, took over the Novy Drama Theater as artistic director in 1989. Sergeyev made his professional bow as an artist at the Maly Theater in 1987, designing Lvov-Anokhin's popular production of Gnedich's "Lackeys." Since then the two have been almost inseparable, and it is no coincidence that Sergyeyev has made his directing debut with another play by Gnedich.
"The Ball" was originally staged in 1912 but essentially disappeared after that; not the kind of track record that promises success for a first-time director. But with strong support from everyone involved, success was the result.
The unquestioned star of the ball is the delightful, charming and astonishing Vera Vasilyeva as Natalya Borisovna, an old-school widow who balks at Peter the Great's western innovations, refusing to attend a state ball with "drunken Germans," and relies on her youthful spunk to save her son's love affair from falling an innocent victim to politics.
Vasilyeva, 70, has the same disarming smile, fetching dimples and bottomless well of sincerity that immediately set her apart when she joined the Satire Theater in 1948. If anything, this universally beloved actress has since grown younger and stronger. She is grace and talent incarnate, a study in detail, concentration and truth, effortlessly illuminating every glance and gesture of her endearingly blustery heroine. This is that rare performer who defies description or criticism, and must be seen to be believed.
As rarely happens with a cast of 40, Vasilyeva's entrancing, nuanced performance is surrounded everywhere by top-notch work.
The first entrance of her youthful, love-struck son Pyotr Andreyevich (Denis Bespaly), frizzed up in an orange costume and beehive wig to impress the pretty Frosya (Marina Yakovleva), is a spectacle in itself, and highlights Sergeyev's shrewd delineation of caricatured types.
Frosya's family is headed by her embezzling father Matvei Sidorych (Anatoly Sutyagin) with a bell-shaped belly and the complexion of a cadaver. At 60, he is 30 years younger than his own straggly-haired, wheelchair-bound father Sidor Zotych (Igor Churikov), but not half as lively. His wife Zinoviya (Natalya Bespalova) is a remarkable creature whose wildly exaggerated bust is barely enough to balance off the weight of her humongous rear end.
Budding bourgeois bums, they are heartily consternated when Natalya Borisovna gives them an ultimatum: If they attend the ball, she will not let her son marry their daughter. However, the seemingly hard-hearted matriarch turns out to be a softy underneath, and when she learns that Matvei Sidorych has been caught stealing government monies, she quietly suggests her son pay the debt and saves the day.
The gala culmination is the wild ball itself, overseen by a wonderfully mock-serious Peter the Great (Vladimir Levashov). It features a huge corps de ballet of fainting matrons, dandies in pink and flying cupids who cavort to the light strains of music by Jacques Offenbach.
Sergeyev's own modern, minimalist set, aided by Viktor Vasilyev's strong side and top lighting, showcase Natalia Zakurdayeva's colorful and comical period costumes and the extraordinarily expressive makeup by Lyudmila Meyerhold. This "Ball" is one not to be missed.