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The Moscow Times Friday, February 26, 1999

Taking the Easy View of Madness

By John Freedman

Sergeyev turned to the obscure story of Pyotr Tchaikovsky's wife, Antonina. She was a dreamy young noblewoman who idolized the composer and had no idea that when Tchaikovsky proposed marriage she was being used crassly to hush rumors of his homosexuality. After 2 1/2 months more or less spent together, Tchaikovsky abandoned his bride and over the ensuing years he berated and belittled her publicly - calling her such names as "vermin."

Antonina subsequently bore three children to a common-law husband (all the children died in an orphanage), but she never recovered from the blow of her break with Tchaikovsky. She spent her final years in an asylum, imagining herself the victim of violence and mentally enacting meetings with her long-since deceased husband whom she refused to divorce.

The story is, indeed, astonishing. But as Sergeyev himself has compiled it for the theater based on historical records, it does not take us inside the heroine's tragedy. This is partly the fault of the script, which has no real dramatic development, and partly the fault of Sergeyev's direction, which always leaves us on the outside looking in.

On the surface, Sergeyev created a neat, accurate production. Disembodied doctors' voices inform us about Antonina's state of health, while swift, silent nurses occasionally bustle through providing hints of action. Antonina, as performed with feeling by Tamara Degtyaryova, rants when she is angry, weeps when she is sad and makes as if she has been crucified when she feels martyred.

But the show's well-structured accuracy is what undermines it. It is too clean, too slick and too illustrative to make us share in the heroine's drama. I began identifying with the motionless, expressionless doctor whose face was always visible through a window in the back. He certainly did not care about Antonina, for she was just another clinical case of madness to him. Nor could I find emotional common ground with her; the production seemed to be assembled as if by numbered instructions. As the performance wore on, I began to suspect that there was something offensive about merely observing madness from a safe, comfortable theatrical distance.

Degtyaryova works admirably. But, because of the surroundings in which she works, she remains an object to be observed and pitied rather than becoming a figure capable of evoking compassion.