Maria Zărnescu

Georgian Showcase in Tbilisi, Georgia, October 5—8, 2013.

Part of the Tbilisi International Festival of Theatre, the Georgian Showcase, has reached its 5th edition. Organized in collaboration with the Georgian Section of the International Association of Theatre Critics, the showcase hosted the best new productions in 2012— 2013 of well-known stage directors alongside a bright generation of young theatre makers. In order to reflect the vitality, innovation and diversity of contemporary Georgian theatre, the showcase presented both modern international and national drama, as well as world classics, in state-owned and independent theatres based in the capital Tbilisi, but also from several other East and West Georgian cities.

According to legend, the Gods chained Prometheus to the Caucasus Mountains, to the South of which, between the Black and Caspian Seas, Georgia is located. Also, the Argonauts stole the Golden Fleece from Colchis—Kolkheti, in the Western part of the country. Due to its geopolitical location at the crossroads of Western Asia and Eastern Europe, Georgia was over the centuries a territory much coveted by the great Roman, Byzantine, Persian, Arabian, and Ottoman empires. The 19th century finds Georgia in the Russian Empire, and the 20th century in the Soviet Union. It became an independent state in 1991, succeeding in preserving its national specifics and its centuries-long culture, e.g. its particular alphabet and music.

Not surprisingly, this melting pot of heritages and influences has left its mark on the Georgian theatre of today, in general, and in particular on the Tbilisi Showcase, and all this in a city that is in itself a strange but charming mix of old and new. DIVERSITY was the keyword of the program that presented 35 shows over the course of four days. The authors covered more than two thousand years of history in what seemed “a blink of an eye”: from Euripides and Shakespeare to Sarah Kane and Martin McDonagh, together with Georgian classical or contemporary dramatists. And in music, Rossini and Chopin seemed to be at a step’s distance from Pink Floyd or Georgian folk music.

Actorship master class

The showcase highlighted the importance of the actor’s craft in the Georgian theatre’s syncretism. In many productions it was more “visible” than the art of directing (the one that marked the 20th century) or than scenography (which seems to prevail in the 21st, at least in my country). Overall, the sets were simple, functional, and the directors seemed to have given up—here and there—the demonstrations of conceptual force, in favour of those of the art and craft, beneficial for the different categories of audience and also for the actors. In most cases they appeared to be “multitasking,” having been trained to achieve the syncretism that I mentioned above through their own performance.

Such is the case of the young team of the “Vaso Abashidze” Music and Drama State Theatre of Tbilisi, which present an eclectic repertoire, an experimental mixture of genres: drama, opera, musical, dance theatre, literary performances. The institution has a history of almost ninety years, but the last ten have been under the leadership of the young director David Doiashvili. He opened the theatre to the world and raised the quality of its productions to the next level, as proven by shows such as Macbeth or Carmen, the latter under the direction of another young man, an experienced choreographer, Konstantin Purtseladze. I found both their signatures on a new vision of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at The Georgian Showcase.

A fairy and elf tale, a play commissioned for an aristocratic 16th wedding, a text with political hints, a game of love and fate, a psychoanalytical investigation, these are only a few of the labels put on the Midsummer Night’s Dream. A milestone for every director. Its modern story begins in the 1970s with Peter Brook’s production at the Royal Shakespeare Company and now it seems impossible to watch a new show without remembering the previous ones. This also applies to the Georgian “Dream,” a black-and-white one, a mixture of modern and legendary times. The parallel stories and destinies have made many directors decide that the roles of Theseus and Oberon / Hippolyta and Titania should be played by the same actor / actress. In this new staging vision, the option is overbid: Philostrates, the master of the revels, becomes Puck, the elf, and the four lovers also play some of the mechanicals, in an even more entangled crossing of planes.

In the final scene of the court solemnities, vague memories appear like flashbacks, and the dreams—just as any dreams do—have their not always happy ending in the real world. Snout the tinker (who plays Wall in the metatheatre scene) dreams of himself as being young and healthy, while in reality he is a poor disabled guy… Young and physically well trained (including acrobatics), the “Vaso Abashidze” Theatre team perform with professionalism and dedication in the minimalist space designed by Anano Mosidze. The forest is just a black panel (simple, but so functional), and the court—a collection of chairs / armchairs / thrones (according to ranks) continuously moving and interacting with the performers. The whole is spiced with videos, animations and Chopin’s music adapted by the director Doiashvili.

At the same theatre, we witnessed a preview of Fireface by Marius von Mayenburg, under the direction of David Papava-Gurji. The play that won the German playwright his international recognition at the end of the 1990s is a typical case of post-modern social drama, melding psychoanalysis with philosophical themes. The new generations grow up in perpetual claustrophobia and are haunted by the fear of resembling their parents. An arsonist since early childhood, the teenager Kurt lives in an incestuous relationship with his sister Olga. When she finds a lover, her brother’s obsession becomes dangerous while the parents pretend to ignore it. Their end will be a tragic one, and also Kurt’s, who will choose his way out through fire.

The particulars of a German family are only a step away from the apocalyptic generality of the modern society. The precepts that had guided mankind for centuries are forgotten. Europe and the whole world are in crisis, man has lost his moral code, become vulnerable, defenseless in the irreversible process of self-destruction. Living and working in London, the Georgian director Papava-Gurji is familiar with such themes, which he valorizes in a show of contrasts: the cold and almost antiseptic space—where the story unfolds—will end in flames, and the heroes’ self-conscious acting is continuously alternating with their internal combustions. The five characters are remarkably played by the cast of young and expressive actors: Giorgi Bakhutashvili (Kurt), Ana Tsereteli (Olga), Buba Gogorishvili (mother), David Beshitaishvili (father), Gigi Karseladze (the friend).

Actorship also asserted itself in the shows of “Kote Marjanishvili” State Drama Theatre of Tbilisi. The two productions I watched during the Georgian Showcase fully demonstrate this mixture of experience and innovative force. The artistic manager of the company, director Levan Tsuladze, proposes an original vision of the famous 17th century comedy Tartuffe by Molière, “a hymn” to the hypocrisy and bigotry of all times. Although it is a “classic” staging, which uses—here and there—borrowed Commedia dell’Arte techniques, and makes the most of all “by the book” types of comicity, the laughter often fades away, becoming the bitter smile of awareness. One has to wonder: how many Tartuffes have we got around? There is no happy ending: no king’s messenger will show up as “Deus ex machina,” Tartuffe prevails with the whole community on his side. Is this how the future will look?…

In contemporary counterpoint, the same theatre presented The Grönholm Method, from the early 2000s. Author: the Catalonian Jordi Galceran, director: the Georgian Temur Chkeidze. Although the subject is as actual as it can be—an interview for the position of Sales Manager at a multinational corporation—the theme is as old as the world and war. The four candidates are ready to ruin their competitors psychologically, mercilessly. The mixture of intellectual thriller and psychological policier is remarkably performed by actors Eka Chkheidze, Nika Tavadze, Apolon Kublashvili and Aleko Makharoblishvili.

The artistic benefits of movement

Writer and director Jean Cocteau once said that the theatres that tell their stories by using the universal language of movement have neither past, nor future and, contrary to the “conventional” ones, never become ”out of fashion.” The organizers of the Georgian Showcase were extremely generous with the diversity of the shows’ genres, and the ballet, movement theatre, pantomime, dramatic circus, non-verbal theatre forms were abundantly represented.

Tbilisi Opera and Ballet State Theatre opened the season 2013—2014 with three short plays. In A Secret Garden, where the seasons eternally succeed, the very young dancers—boys and girls—live their age-specific and love stories through dance (choreography: Sasha Evtimova, music: Sepastian Plano and Ólafur Arnalds). Lyricism and pastel colours, like somewhere, anywhere over the rainbow, contrast with the second act of the show. Sagalobeli (canticle) is a dynamic painting, strongly influenced by folklore, preserving the Georgian spirit, not in the language of the folk dance, but in that of the classical one (choreography: Yuri Possokhov). The elements of the national costume are modernly integrated, the traditional music is re-worked by contemporary composers, and the light-design seems to be inspired by the creations of director Robert Wilson. Finally, 1st Flash (choreography: Jorma Elo, music: Jean Sibelius) completes the actual image of the Ballet Company, which, for the last decade, has been under the direction of the famous ballerina Nina Ananiashvili.

From an establishment whose history goes back one and a half centuries, to one founded in 2001, there may be a large step in time, but it is a small one when it comes to professionalism, dedication and artistic achievement. “Kakha Bakuradze’s” Movement Theatre is an independent company performing a synthesis of forms: drama, pantomime, ballet, martial arts, circus, folklore, contemporary music, visual arts, a unity in diversity, irrespective of the venue (indoor or outdoor space). The Georgian Showcase hosted the premiere of Gamma, under the direction and with the choreography of Bakuradze, in a new space. Indoors: a small, modernistic foyer and a room with a small arena in the middle, where, for an hour, a show à la Cirque du Soleil is taking place, at a different scale and geographic dimension. The everyday face of the community life is evoked by a series of metaphors and raised to poetic heights. Life is a cage, sometimes a trap, but redemption may come from flying and maybe from music. The pyramid-shaped ascensional space, with the strings assembly, hammocks, wings and soap-bubbles is imagined by George Ninoshvili. The actors, who are also dancers and acrobats, are accompanied by instrumental musicians and singers. It is an equally poetical and vigorous show, with direct address to the senses.

Little theatrical jewels

Fingers Theatre started at the end of the 1980s in Batumi, as a result of a few successful attempts by the director and present artistic manager of the institution, Beso Kupreishvili. Since 2006, it has operated in Tbilisi, hosted by “Kote Marjanishvili” State Drama Theatre. The fingers costumed in different characters seem to find their way straight to the spectators’ hearts. In the Georgian showcase, I enjoyed an original and successful experiment: the transposition of the The Wall from the legendary Pink Floyd album (and later movie), a story that is usually enacted live in sports stadia, to the tiny scale of the stage for the actors’ fingers. The comparison with the oversized production of the musician Roger Waters (seen in 2013 on tour in Europe) is not at all unfavourable to the theatre production. The wall metaphor, which stands for the personal and political isolation, the trauma of abandonment and of oppresion is reconstructed at a small scale, in a different language, pointing to the strength of a different kind of “fingering.” The wall continues to be built and rebuilt, only the hands are trying to escape. And still, the wall is alive and engulfs them. But the final scene of the show, directed by Kupreishvili, leaves us with the illusion of freedom in the appearance of a poetical angel.

The director alternates—with the same cheerful elegance and never-ending humour—the poetics of rock with the comic… opera. And the fingers with… puppets. Contradiction in terms? Not at all. Beaumarchais’ play The Barber of Seville became famous as Rossini’s opera buffa and now reached comic fullment in the production of “Mtsire Ptskala” Puppet Opera Theatre. The story of the clever barber, druggist, musician, pamphleteer, actually a lovers’ go-between from sunny Seville, was enacted in one of the funniest productions of the Georgian Showcase. Looking very much like the well-known Muppets, the two lovers live their adventures accompanied by playful musical tunes: the young Count Almaviva—as a haughty and impetuous cock, and the beautiful Rosine—as a charming and distinguished hen. The comic effect is immediate and guaranteed. And the happy ending with wedding is supposed to confirm a theory, in which at least children should still believe: that love and goodness shall always prevail.

Maria Zărnescu (b. 1969) is a Romanian theatrologist and critic, teaching associate and a PhD candidate at the University of Theatrical Arts and Cinematography “I.L. Caragiale” Bucharest. Her theatre and music reviews, studies and essays have been published in Critical Stages, Time Out Bucharest, Yorick, Teatrul AZI,Concept and Theatron. She has long experience as a radio journalist and manager, television editor, and events producer.

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