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First Nighter: Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, Poe's The Raven Take Flight

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Guess it's blowin' in the zeitgeist, but two adaptations involving rhymed classics are available in Manhattan this weekend only and worth any theatergoer's precious time:

Alexander Pushkin's Eugene Onegin was published in serial form between 1825 and 1832 and published in its entirety in 1833. Because then and now Pushkin is a literary figure second to none in the hearts of his countrypersons and because Eugene Onegin, described as the first ever novel in verse is revered as much as or more than his other works, it's had many adaptations into other media.

Rimas Tuminas's production for Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre may not even be the most recent, but here it is at City Center, in Russian with surtitles, as part of the Cherry Orchard Festival. For it the director has taken glorious liberties with Pushkin's melancholy text. Many are of a sort that might ruffle feathers of traditionalists. On the other hand, they're bound to stir the hearts of ticket buyers who wait hungrily for explosive theatrics.

Tuminas pours it all on -- music by Faustas Latenas, dance choreographed by Angelica Kholina, more than one actor playing the focal roles -- and he takes three hours and 45 minutes to do so. But hold on before you recoil at the length! They're three hours and 45 minutes that fly by and reward the spectacle's spectators every minute of the way. Something surprising and not to be missed occurs in each one of those minutes.

The story remains the same, of course. The imperious Onegin (Alexey Guskov as the older one, Viktor Dobronravov as the younger one) rejects the impassioned advances of Tatyana Larina (Eugeniya Kregzhde), maintaining he's too restless a fellow ever to tie himself down in a marriage. Many years and many characters later -- including an influencing Moscow cousin (97-year-old Galina Konovalova) -- when Onegin has had his disillusioning fill of wandering, he returns in pursuit of the now married Tatyana, only to be rebuffed.

Although Tuminas and designer Adomas Yatsovskis keep the basic set free of everything but a high tilting mirror at the back, a walkway directly in front of it and a partial false proscenium, they constantly add set pieces like the bed the young and ebullient Tatyana pulls on and off and plays on. There are times when snow flies thickly. There's a barn into which figures huddle for a while that's assembled quickly and disassembled just as quickly.

A chorus of young dancing women in costume designer Maria Danilova's flowing gowns populates the environments over and again, whipped into shape by a dancing mistress ((Ludmila Maksakova). Ekaterina Kramzina pops in and out playing a domra. A white bunny (Mariya Berdinskikh) does a routine. There's a stuffed bear. The only thing missing is a kitchen sink.

Throughout, the acting is big. Yes, sometimes the young Onegin only struts silently about, but when characters speak -- when, for instance, Tatyana recites the masher's letter she writes Onegin -- they declaim whatever's urgent they have to say as if they mean to be heard from one end of Russia to the other.

Why not let's just say that nothing quite like this Eugene Onegin has unfolded in a local venue in some time, and maybe never. The theater-mad will drop whatever they've planned the next couple of days and go see it.
The temptation to start ravin' about The Raven is too strong to resist. The one I'm talking about is the theater piece at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater. For the American premiere of composer Toshio Hosokawa's take on Edgar Allan Poe's popular, though gloomy, poem, Neal Goren conducts a Gotham Chamber Opera production with direction and choreography by Luca Veggetti.

Hosokawa writes in a somber mood to match Poe's story of a man who's grieving his deceased Lenore when he opens a chamber door that's being rapped and tapped upon. His visitor is a raven who perches on a bust of Pallas and whose sole comment -- as just about everyone knows who's ever read Poe -- is "nevermore." Goren and his 13 musicians, all on stage to the audience's left, maximize the ominously flowing score, and the effect is of anxiety made audible.

What goes on at the right side of the stage is likewise remarkable. That's where mezzo-soprano Fredrika Brillembourg sings and speak-sings Poe's text in a hypnotically piercing manner -- not vocally piercing but emotionally piercing. And she's to be congratulated not only for her singing but also for meeting the other demands made of her.

Interacting with her is Alessandra Ferri, who's been finding intriguing ways to dance after having retired from her appropriately celebrated ballet career. At times as she slithers and poses and stretches, she seems to represent the raven. At other times, when she reaches for Brillembourg's hand or twines around Brillembourg, she seems to represent another aspect of the bereaved singer, a mourning doppelganger.

Since Brillembourg and Ferri, though physically different, are dressed alike (by Peter Speliopoulos) in shades of grey and wear their hair long, the impression that they're both Poe's lamenting narrator is further enhanced. Even more than that, the tandem movements -- at one point Ferri extends herself as if in flight on the supine Brillembourg's bent knees -- suggest that the raven is symbolic of the narrator's entrenched despair.

There is one especially effective theatrical minute when Ferri is crouched upstage but suddenly seems to be moving on the other side of the upstage wall. The coup is courtesy of projectionist Adam Larsen as well as lighting designer Clifton Taylor.

For the benefit of those who haven't reread "The Raven" in a while, its opening line is, "Once upon a midnight dreary, as I pondered, weak and weary." With all the deft hands involved here, there's nothing weak and weary about it. Poe is quite nicely honored.

André Caplet's wordless musical setting of Poe's "Masque of the Red Death" precedes The Raven. Here, harpist Sivan Magen is surrounded on the right side of the stage by four musicians as he turns the focal instrument into a percussive bone-chiller. Caplet doesn't take long to spin his musical version of the story, but he definitely achieves his intention to startle.