Saturday, February 25, 2023

Pieces of Pushkin

Alexander Pushkin is generally regarded by Russians as the greatest author in the Russian language, but his work doesn't always find a place on stages in the U.S.

That's why I was excited when I heard that the Russian Arts Theater and Studio would be presenting the best-known of Pushkin's "Little Tragedies": Mozart and Salieri.

As you might have guessed from the play's title, Pushkin's drama helped inspired Peter Shaffer's hit Broadway show (and later film adaptation) Amadeus. In two simple scenes, it portrays the jealousy of the composer Antonio Salieri and re-enacts the murder he later claimed to have committed, poisoning his artistic rival W.A. Mozart.

Riccardo Ripani plays Salieri in the production currently running in New York, and it is perhaps fitting that he is outshone by the charismatic Di Zhu who plays the more famous Mozart. Zhu actually plays Mozart in more than one sense of the word, since she provides live piano music throughout much of the performance. This is no mean feat, since the onstage piano is literally spun about the stage by two angels (Semion Kashirin and Anthony Nikitopoulos) as she plays it.

After performing Mozart and Salieri, the company provides an interlude, consisting of passages from Pushkin's poem Ruslan and Ludmila, recited in both English and Russian. That is the only Russian in the show, however, as the cast then performs in English Pushkin's comical Scene from Faust, a send-up both of the poet Goethe (a central figure of German Romanticism) and his admirer Lord Byron.

Ripani plays Faust in this scene, while Zhu plays Mephistopheles in a demonically good costume. If you're interested in seeing it yourself, the show is playing until April 1st.