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"Lucy, Eleanor and Michelle" (о спектакле "Девушки Битлов")

The Moscow Times , 01/02/2001 

By John Freedman

If the Kronos Quartet can switch from Franz Haydn to Jimi Hendrix, there is no reason why the Moscow Art Theater can’t replace Anton Chekhov with the Beatles.

As always, the question is not what you can do, but how well you do it.



In staging "The Girls of the Beatles" at the Chekhov Art Theater, Alexander Marin did just enough to satisfy an audience hungry for glimpses into the glittery, backstage world of pop and TV stars. True, the play by Sergei Volynets has pretensions of exploring the gray area separating reality and fantasy, but Marin really only touches on that as an overextended afterthought.

"The Girls of the Beatles" is something of a poor man’s wax museum. Only, instead of mock-ups of the Fab Four, we see some characters who ostensibly inspired their songs: Sergeant Pepper (Igor Zolotovitsky), Rita (Nelli Nevedina), Sexy Sadie (Yulia Chebakova), Lucy (Polina Medvedeva) and Michelle (Natalya Rogozhkina).

Maybe because it’s a Russian play we also get brief looks at Lenin (Alexander Salminov), Marx (Roman Kirillov), Mayakovsky (Jonathan Phillips) and a rock and roll Einstein (Eduard Chekmazov). These men double as go-fers for a TV show host played by Igor Ugolnikov, a former real-life TV show host. This hapless egomaniac is — if Beatles fans will pardon my Rolling Stones pun — under the thumb of a formidable, authoritarian director (Alexandra Skachkova).

Even when it sinks to its silliest, this production never entirely looses rhythm because Beatles songs incessantly waft through the air. The preference is for the late period, although "Eleanor Rigby" and "Twist and Shout" are included and the four women themselves turn in an admirable live version of "Girl."

Things begin with a long introduction in which a man named Pepper prepares to plug his book about Beatles babes on a talk show. We are treated to a full songbook of backstage confusion and ego trips broken up by utterances of such little axioms as the host’s declaration that, in television, one tells the truth only before going on the air.

The routine pre-broadcast disorder is broken up by the appearance of Rita, a blowzy chick who, I guess for reasons of poetic license, is not a meter maid, but a gas station attendant. She needs a gin and tonic before she’ll tell her story of sleeping with Ringo Starr.

As might be observed by Lewis Carroll’s Alice (who, herself, inspired a pretty good song by the Jefferson Airplane): From here on out things get "curiouser and curiouser."

Sexy Sadie is a prostitute from Soweto who hit the big time in Johannesburg before pulling down big bucks in L.A. with Marlon Brando after which she met John, deprived him of his virginity and adopted him.

Right.

Lucy, who was into growing organic corn in Arizona, went to New York with two tabs of LSD and a pistol in her purse. She wanted to shoot Kennedy because her brother was killed in Vietnam, but Kennedy was in D.C. so she ended up dropping acid with George in Central Park.

Michelle might be Pepper’s mother, but probably isn’t. Or she may have tried to bum five francs off of Paul in Paris once. Or maybe when she was in France she met the TV show host — whose name might be James, but probably isn’t.

Now, at gun point, Lucy makes "James" drop acid while the others smoke dope and the Beatles boogie on tape. James cuts loose, clenching a long, stiffly flexible hose between his legs and shaking, rattling and rolling it with his hands.

I guess this was the director’s very subtle theatrical metaphor for a man losing his inhibitions.

Need I add that before "Strawberry Fields" comes on and the white jackets come out, we suspect we are in a nut house? And that nothing we have seen is what it seemed?

Well, as I noted earlier, it isn’t "what" but "how." And, I must say, this is pop theater, pop music and pop psychology at its frothiest.

The show begins as the well-known Ugolnikov energetically steps up to the front row, greets the audience and waits for the applause he knows will come. This is the level the show works on — anticipate what the people want, then give it to them like Peter Townshend, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Keith Richards all windmilling C-chords at once.

"The Girls of the Beatles" marks the beginning of a new era at the world’s most famous playhouse. This is the first production to be conceived, rehearsed and opened under the guidance of the new artistic director, Oleg Tabakov.

Assuming that Tabakov is pleased with the result, I guess we can declare the following: Pop goes the Art Theater.

 

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