Published: January 3rd 2009January 3rd 2009
Sveta took this of the New Year's party and its table
To close out 2008, I lost my wallet. This is the same one that survived a night on a Utah ski slope and an afternoon stranded at the corner of 11th and M streets. Four times I lost and recovered it on the UNL campus. One of those times a couple students of mine found it outside the Union and brought to my office giggling. "It was always running away," Sveta explained. This time, it appears to have made a successful escape. But even more than is usual, the lost wallet in Russia led to too much time being spent trying to contact credit card companies. Ultimately the folks back home were put in charge of that. While Sveta made last minute, year-end trips to the dentist, I prepared nachos and chili for the Vorontsov New Year's party. The nachos looked like a meat mountain.
New Year's is the Russian Christmas. Russians don't celebrate Christmas on the 25th. The Orthodox Christmas is January 7, but it passes quietly enough. New Year's combines the family togetherness of Christams with the excess of New Year's eve. Many of my students say they stay with their families until 12, and then venture off
Alexander treated me to lots of vodka; no bathouse this time.
into the night. Fireworks explode non-stop and there's more than the usual number of toasts. The most unique feature, however, are the variety shows.
The Vorontsov's had placed the table so that everyone had a view of the television. Even the sour cream encrusted peak of meat mountain, the table's centerpiece, did not get in the way. On the screen, Russian singers and actors sang and acted on a garishly decorated stage. When not performing, they sat in the audience mugging for the camera, smiling all too big, holding a thumbs up, or clinking champagne glasses. The songs ran the gamut from the faux traditional to comedy pops to opera. "See, like the Muppet Show," Sveta said. All the major networks run competing variety shows on New Years. The tradition goes back to Soviet times. While recovering the following afternoon (the following year), Sveta and I found a rebroadcast of the 1979 state variety show. Much was the same, garish stage, strange ties, musical grab bag. The songs were bit better back then, not so cheesy, and guests occasionally commended the hero cosmonauts. The greatest contrast came with the audience. No one smiled. The camera panned just as much
Inside the theater
then as it does now, but time and time again it revealed grim, sour faces accompanied by golf claps. This Soviet seriousness seemed almost as forced as the contemporary merriment.
Everyone ate a lot that night. It's hard not to when you're at the table and Mrs. Voronstov keeps brining you chicken and potatoes. Our hosts politiely sampled meat mountain, which grew cold and rigid as the night wore on. The salad was my favorite dish. Shuba - with fish and beets -- is amazing, especially when it's made by a Vorontsov.
Variety shows aren't really for me. I prefer the theater. There was no Bolshoi visit during my December Moscow trip, but I was ok with that because I had a ticket for Fathers and Sons back in Perm. Before I left town, my class of third year Russian language and literature students decided that instead of class. So instead of class on Thursday, we should go to the theater. I agreed. Russian students do this sort of thing regularly: they bring tea, sometimes cakes to class. A week after our theater excursion, the same students treated me to a Christmas celebration complete with homemade fortune cookies
At the American Corner
I hold a copy of the Perm English language newspaper "the Perm Days."
and a coconut cake. Sveta’s students have taken her to the cafeteria and thrown her parties. So that’s how I got to experience the Theater for Young Spectators.
“Look! It’s swarming with young spectators!” Sveta observed. School kids were rapidly and noisily taking their seats, climbing over each other, running up and down the aisles. Teachers tried to maintain some sort of order. There were some indications that this adaptation might not be up to par.
Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons is a beautiful novel. It addresses generational resentment and mutual, if too often muted and misunderstood, affection. It’s the story of what happens when two friends return home from university to see their respective parents and try and meet girls. The lead character, Bazarov is a brilliant and frustrated young man. He pretends to be hard as nails, dissecting frogs and ruthlessly mocking the older generation, but he's a loyal friend and a closet sentimentalist. He’s also famously a “nihilist” although too much is made of this in the critical readings of the novel. Though the story is told from the perspective of his friend Arkady, it is Bazarov holds the story together.
The Bazarov for
young spectators, scowled and puffed and when that failed to make an impression yelled and stamped his feet. He played one of the great characters of Russian literature as an angry and slightly unbalanced thirteen-year-old. The hysterical display kept the young spectators interested for about five minutes and then grew tiresome before becoming unintentionally hilarious. Laughter and rustling spread throughout the Theater for Young Spectators.
Stage design compounded the train wreck. “The horse,” my student Olga pointed out, “was the worst.” He may have been, but the haystack was just as bad. The horse or rather horse head established location, in this case a family estate, for the first scene. The horse and haystack never left the stage. Scenes changed, characters too, but the horse and his haystack remained. During Anna Ivansova’s elegant ball as dancer’s twirled about, the horse stood by solemnly, stage left, while the haystack held down center stage. Later Bazarov made an impassioned speech, striding stage left and gesticulating wildly at the horse.
The female characters all played tarts, saucing it up for the young spectators, who nonetheless remained indifferent if not hostile. Watching became increasingly painful and it was all-too-obvious that the actors
Sonia runs the American Corner at Gorky Library where I lead the Sunday Conversation Club. Here she is wearing a snow maiden cap.
were also suffering. So it came as a monumental surprise that the director refused to let things die quietly with Bazarov. Instead, at the hero’s deathbed the director decided to inject one final dose of hysteria. Thus instead of simply and mercifully expiring, Bazorov sprung from his bed, all feverish and shrill. The lights shone red, setting the mood for a deathbed hallucination. All the other actors, now wearing masks, danced out onto the stage, taunting the once proud nihilist. Demonic they were not. The disguises could not mask that the cast was tired and embarrassed and clearly ready to go home. Not Bazarov. He shrieked and flapped his arms, running laps around the horse and the haystack. Thankfully, a rope dropped from above and Bazorov grabbed hold. And just like in PE class Bazorov climbed that rope. And that’s when the curtain dropped. To my surprise, the young spectators applauded. The actors dutifully came out and bowed.
So I can’t feel bad about my Christmas performances. At Perm State University, I run a Saturday afternoon music and movie club. It’s all girls, except for the student musicians who allegedly assist me but in reality do most of the work. These student musicians come in and sing and play songs – Elvis or Chuck Berry – if it was the Anton and Alexander duo, Red Hot Chili Peppers or Metallica if was Mitri and Fyodor. The girls in the audience listen, make eyes at the musicians, and learn to sing in English. The performances are surprisingly heartfelt and the guys are pretty skilled guitarists. It’s sweet and instructive to watch the dynamic between the all-female audience and the dudes. I’ve come to realize that my high school experience might have been very different had I stuck with the guitar. The Saturdays when there are no musicians, I show the girls movies and we talk about them. It’s really quite pleasant.
The director of the Littera English group, of which my club is a part, decided to hold a Christmas Party December 27th. The director insisted on a Christmas performance. In Russia, Santa Claus is called Old Man Frost and everywhere he goes he’s followed by his granddaughter, the Snow Maiden. The leader of the debating club, a 73-year-old South African named was tapped as the Old Man Frost. I was to be his granddaughter.
That was the plan, but our director told us the debating club leader had unfortunately celebrated Boxing Day a bit too enthusiastically and ended up pie eyed. As a result, I somewhat reluctantly relinquished my Snow Maiden role and took over the lead. Sveta became my granddaughter. I wore a beard and cap, handed out gifts, ho-ho-hoed a bit and led the girls in singing the “Hokey Pokey” and “If You’re Happy and You Know It.” I was only following the script prepared by our director. Pretty early into the whole thing, Sveta and I began to wonder whether or not the head debater had gotten a hold of this script and just made up the whole hangover story as a way to maintain his dignity. But the day was ok, even if the songs were straight out of Peter’s pre-school repertoire.
On Sunday, Sveta and I judged English carolling groups at the Gorky Library. This was another American Corner Conversation Club event. A big crowd had gathered. The first two choirs came out and sang traditional carols, but after that the program swerved into stranger waters. First, a girl came out and sang accoustic along to Brittney Spears Christmas CD. Following that was a stark and oddly-affecting acoustic guitar-arrangement of “Santa Baby.” After this experiment folk, there was unusually long break before the next act took the stage. The audience became restless. So MC Sonia volunteered Sveta and me to fill the space with a performance all our own.
The two of stood up in front of the microphone and sang “Oh Christmas Tree.” After the initial “Oh Christmas tree, Oh Christmas tree” I forgot the words and sort of hummed/whined along with Sveta, who got spooked and forgot the words herself. A pause. Our astonished yet sympathetic audience jumped right into that pause and applauded. But Sveta was determined to finish and resumed singing. I resumed whining before really laying into that final “Oh Christmas tree, Oh Christmas tree/A tree so fair and lov-e-ly.”
The band that caused the long break and thus was responsible for our performance finally took the stage. A guitar, violin, flute trio called Salty Dog. Salty Dog treated us to “Stairway to Heaven.” Christmas style. It was an interesting program.