Every Russian at one time in their life or another has heard reference to the Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre of Russia – this theatre troop has a legendary history of over 100 years and their productions rival even those of the Royal Shakespearean Company. This theatre company excels in their combination of honed professional actors and amazing directors to bring almost any show to orgasmic proportions. Needless to say that Smile at us, Oh Lord! did not fail to meet the sky-high standard.
The plot, depicting a story about an old stone-carver, Ephraim Dudak (Sergey Makovetskiy), and his journey to Vilnius, Lithuania to witness his son’s trial for the attempted murder of the a Vilniusian official was nothing short of mind-blowing. Filled with philosophical inquiries of identity, questions of the meaning of life, and finding happiness in impoverished life, the production served a delicious entrée of nutritious brain food. One particular recurring thought, introduced and re-evaluated throughout the course of the play by Avner Rosenthal (Viktor Sukhorukov) was the idea of material freedom. Avner, previously being a wealthy general store owner, was reduced to poverty when his store burned down. Ranging from condemning G-d for such a misfortune, to condemning G-d for not birthing him as a tree, this character demonstrated the entire spectrum from grieving to finding happiness in minimalism.
If there is one word that raced through my mind as I sat at the edge of my seat of the 3-hour long performance, it would be “professional.” Everything about this production illuminated the highest of standards; even simple props like Sabbath candles were carved to perfection, displaying traditional Jewish designs etched onto the candelabra and the used candles that poor families would save to avoid overspending.
The actors’ performances especially screamed “professional” at the top of their lungs. None of the actors wasted a single movement; everything had intention and purpose, and worked for the completion of a goal. Even Yulia Rutberg, who depicted She-Goat (wearing a long, white dress and a bell), had her hands curled into semi-fists as if they were hooves, and trotted around like an actual goat. Worth mentioning also, is Victor Dobronravov’s depiction of Khloyne-Genekh, whose character goes far beyond his role of providing comedic breaks. Dobronravov not only accentuated his movements to look like he was fully serious in all of his bizarre activities, but simultaneously had the audience sold that his overemphasis of weirdness was absolutely necessary. Brilliant acting was not at all hard to find in this production, when even full-grown adults could accurately depict short gypsy brats.
If there was only one regret I found in the show, it was its English subtitles – the translation did not hold even a whisk of a candle to what was actually being said, which in my personal opinion may have taken away from the appreciation of the plot for audience members who did not understand Russian.
Despite this being the last performance of Smile at us, Oh Lord!, Vahktangov State Academic Theatre company has promised to come back to Canada in the near future, so make sure to brush up on your Russian to appreciate fully the majesty of this troop! For further information, make sure to check out their website www.vakhtangov.ru/en