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The Death of Meyerhold

by Rich See

There's a point in Studio Theatre's new offering of The Death of Meyerhold when composer Dmitri Shostakovich (played wonderfully by Scott Kerns) has a breakdown from the strain of being deemed subversive. He has unfortunately written a "decadent and frivolous" symphony. This is, of course, simply a matter of opinion. After all it is only a symphony, not a matter of life and death. However, in the fledgling Soviet Union everything was viewed as moving the country towards the great goal of a worker's society -- even the art. And thus art became a matter of life and death to the artists involved in creating it. The Soviet government realized that with art -- writing, music, film, dance, theatre -- the state controlled a wonderful medium of propaganda, both subtly and overtly. And thus artists were imprisoned and executed at the whim of politicians. It's incredibly sad and angering, because you realize just what pawns artists can become in the greater game of domination and power that we euphemistically call "politics."

The Meyerhold in The Death of Meyerhold is Vsevolod Emilevich Meyerhold, creator of the biomechanical system of theatre, prolific director, and one-time student of Konstantin Stanislavski (creator of "method acting"). While Stanislavski preferred a very natural realism, Meyerhold preferred a style of symbolic theatre known as "grotesque realism." In this form he sought to highlight the innate contradictions at all levels within a play. The two men separated on less than friendly terms, but just before their deaths reunited to become artistic collaborators. It is because both are regarded as two of the greatest shapers of modern theatre, as well as being two kindred souls who fed into each other's genius, that Stanislavski plays a prominent role throughout the play.

Writer Mark Jackson takes us on a tour of Vsevolod Meyerhold's life from the point when he decides to form his own theatre company to his untimely death by execution during the Stalinist regime. The playwright hits upon the director's marriage to Zinaida Raihk, his development of several great Soviet theatre artists and performers, as well as his working relationships with Stanislavski, Chekhov, Shostakovich, and the poet Mayakovsky. Along the way, he highlights Meyerhold's involvement in the Russian Revolution and the Soviet government as he moves from struggling artistic director to political overseer of several of Russia's top theatre companies. Jackson then brings the final years into focus as Meyerhold does not grasp the depth of ruthlessness around him until the final moments of his life -- an interesting contradiction for a man who proclaims his lifelong search for truth, yet has been blind to seeing the truth of the political system around him.

It's a complex story about a complex man, and Mr. Jackson fits a great deal into the play. Placing Meyerhold's life against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution, which was occurring simultaneously, and which must be taken into account in order to understand the man, this is an ambitious undertaking. In fact, it's almost overwhelming and the reason for the three hour running time. By the end, you've laughed a great deal, cried (at least inwardly), and felt like you've watched an excellent documentary on the History Channel. It's a play that demands the audiences' attention in order to be understood and appreciated. And, along the way, is a great deal of fun with some terrific humor and insightful dialogue.

Director Rick Simas takes Studio Theatre's newest blackbox space, Stage Four, and with a very simple two-tier set of wood and stairs, turns it into a multi-media experience. The pacing is fresh and constantly high energy. He has his cast moving, dancing, jumping, and running throughout the performance. These actors are working the entire time they are on-stage and the effort pays off with a very good show.

There are a couple of minor disconnects. Joel Ruben Ganz who portrays the director (and does an excellent job) never seems to age during the production. This works fine until the climactic ending. (I'm not giving anything away here, the title is The Death of Meyerhold.) When he was imprisoned and killed, Meyerhold was a man well into his sixties -- a grandfatherly-looking man. His wife Zinaida was a much older woman when she was assassinated by secret police. However, neither Ganz or Katya Falikova who portrays Zinaida ever age. The audiences' emotional response at seeing a young man in his late twenties or early thirties being beaten does not have quite the same emotional effect as seeing a 66 year old man being humiliated and tortured. So the production loses some slight emotional wallop.

Also there is an odd scene where the youthful Shostakovich is saying goodbye while Zinaida lounges in a dressing gown and Meyerhold tenderly strokes Shostakovich's hair. You're kind of left wondering "Did I miss something? Some subtle subtext?" Perhaps I did! There are several references questioning Shostakovich's sexual orientation but these are made in passing and never confirmed. (The composer, who died in 1975, was married and fathered several children.) So the scene is strangely out of sync.

Within the cast, Joel Ruben Ganz does an outstanding job of energetically portraying the director. He brings an observant humor to the role, providing a seeming earnestness to the younger Meyerhold and an arrogant swagger to the director once he gains renown. As his wife, Katya Falikova is both kittenish and sincere, bouncing between being a diva and a support system to keep her husband's vision alive.

Richard Henrich's Stanislavski comes across as a good natured father-figure who is part patriarch, part visionary. Cecil Baldwin is terrific as the edgy playwright Chekhov worried his works are being butchered by Stanislavski while at the same time dying from TB. Gregory Stuart's Mayakovsky is a relaxed friend to Meyerhold. His sudden suicide is disturbing and one wishes it would have been more completely explained within the play. Andrew Greenleaf and Jason Lott particularly shine as the First and Second Prisoners, respectively. Their banter is very funny and makes the execution that much more stark.

Jon Townson's portrayal as Mark Jackson and Peter Klaus as his Interviewer is a momentary practical joke that helps us understand Meyerhold's thoughts about theatre. Becky Peters' Maria Babanova shows great comedic wit during her prepared scene Hamlet (in its entirety) for the audition with Meyerhold. Anne Coventry looks like she is having great fun as the Imperial Bourgeoise silently pleading for her life. And again, Scott Kerns is terrific as the nervous and boyish composer Shostakovich.

While The Death of Meyerhold is not for everyone (after three hours the Russian names blend together, even when you're taking notes!), it is very well done and the final slow-motion scenes are intensely compelling. Quite disturbing are the similarities between ideas and attitudes of 1920's and 30's Soviet Union and those circulating here in the U.S. in 2005. This American addition adds an interesting dimension to Studio's Russian Winter Season. Khorosho poshla! (It went down well!)

The Death of Meyerhold
by Mark Jackson
Directed by Rick Simas
with Joel Ruben Ganz, Richard Henrich, Cecil E. Baldwin, Gregory Stuart, Jon Townson, Peter Klaus, Jason Lott, Scott Kerns, Andrew Greenleaf, Becky Peters, Katya Falikova, Anne Coventry
Movement/Choreography: Beth Wilmurt
Sound Design: Jake Rodriguez
Lighting Design: Colin K. Bills
Projections: Erik Trester
Costume Design: Robyn Shrater Seemann
Properties: Katherine Osborne
Running Time: 3 hours with two intermissions
The Studio Theatre Secondstage, 1501 14th Street NW
Telephone: 202-332-3300
WED - SAT @8:30, SUN @730; $25
Opening 01/19/05, closing 02/13/05
Reviewed by Rich See based on 01/23/05 performance
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