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Theatre Journal 53.2 (2001) 337-339
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Brothers and Sisters
Brothers and Sisters.Adapted by Lev Dodin, Sergey Bekhterev, and Arkadiy Katsman, from the trilogy of novels by Fyodor Abramov. The State Academic Maly Theatre of St. Petersburg, Russia, Théâtre de l'Europe, presented by Lincoln Center Festival 2000 at John Jay College Theatre, New York. 16 July 2000.
The Maly Theatre's Brothers and Sisters is a richly woven theatrical tapestry about the aftermath of World War II as reflected in the daily life of a collective farm. It opens with a prologue of flickering images from a Soviet propaganda film: soldiers arduously preparing for battle are underscored by Stalin's 1941 exhortation to the people--"brothers and sisters"--to make sacrifices toward victory over the Germans. In contrast, the play's first live scene opens with the women and children of Pekashino (a fictional village in northern Russia, similar to Abramov's hometown) joyously awaiting the first steamer to arrive after the long winter of 1945. Although the village men who went to war have perished or failed to return, the women now celebrate the return of Mikhail, who at seventeen has become one of the few males on whom they can depend.
Frequently juxtaposing different takes on "brothers and sisters"--from the camaraderie of an encroaching political system to the shifting dependencies among extended family members of a small village--the performance is expansive and sharply ironic. Presented in two parts over six hours, with English supertitles and more than forty characters, Brothers and Sisters presents a long narrative, but the plot is background to wonderfully visualized and acted scenes.
"Meetings and Partings," the first half, focuses on the women--wives, mothers, daughters--who have barely kept their farm functioning during the war, but who optimistically band together sowing new wheat for what they hope will be a prosperous peacetime. The women's observations ("The war has worn the spring out. . . . Sounds as if the birds are moaning, they are as weary as people") serve as a kind of Chekhovian leitmotif. Overlaid on this are the stories of Mikhail and Anifsa. Mikhail (Pyotr Semak) might have been too young for war, but is now tested by the uncertainties of the new peace. He realizes that individual needs and desires complicate devotion to the community when he falls in love with Vavara (Natalya Fomenko), an older woman of liberating sexuality and rebellious wit, and the village women resent his lost attentions. Anfisa (Tatyana Shestakova), the president [End Page 337] of the "New Life" collective, is constantly torn between the party's demands for logs or grain, and answering for the shortages and burdens she endures equally with the town women. She cares so deeply for Mikhail's well-being, that she impulsively expels Vavara from the village. By the end of part one Anfisa has been unseated and replaced by a man from the district party who promises prosperity. So hungry are the villagers that no one acknowledges Anfisa's work, or perceives that transferring power to an outsider will bring new hardships.
The second part, "Roads and Crossroads," begins in 1949 and charts the further erosion of village bonds. Once again, the performance opens with propaganda images: the 1950s Soviet film, Kuban Kossaks, displays undulating fields of grain while radiant female workers sing about a bountiful harvest. But then the projection shifts revealing the faces of the Pekashino villagers, their glum expressions unmoved by such audacious optimism. In the four years since the war, conditions have worsened, and the villagers are unable to move forward; they are victims of an endgame playing out their frustrations on each other. By the conclusion, Mikhail is loveless and spent, Anfisa bereft, and the town destroyed economically and spiritually.
Lev Dodin, the director and co-adapter, has a novelistic feel for detail, yet focuses on the most spare and telling interactions. Mikhail returns to the village amidst little dialogue, as he savors the physical reality of his home and the presence of his mother and siblings. In silence he presents his family with gifts...