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Why, at the end of her life, did Russians so sorely neglect the poet Marina Tsvetaeva? That question may well have sparked the new heart-wrenching work, “The Past is Still Ahead,” which has just arrived at Manhattan’s Cherry Lane Studio Theater and will visit the Jewish Center of Kings Highway for a special matinee on Dec. 16.

Performed in English and Russian by the legendary troupe from Moscow’s Mayakovsky Academic Theater, this work is a star vehicle for the well-known Russian actor of both film and theater, Yelena Romanova. Russian-born playwright Sophia Romma and Francois Rochaix (of Theatre de Carouge in Geneva) co-directed for the New York premiere.

Based on a monologue by Israeli playwright Oded Be’eri, this bittersweet play culls diverse threads of Tsvetaeva’s (1892–1941) life and work, and interweaves them as tightly as an officer’s braided epaulet. This piece telescopes the famous poet’s last days in 1941 in the Tartar Autonomous Republic, and invites one to eavesdrop on several poignant reflections that end with her death by suicide. It’s a memory play, but one whose memories are embracing, and its intimate reflections may apply to all victims who suffer great loss under brutal regimes or social unrest.

The lure of Tsvetaeva is, I feel, her original turn of mind, coupled with the technical virtuosity that makes her poetry so compelling. A prolific writer whose strong staccato rhythms became her signature, she would often fuse classical myth and modern poetry, drawing on the raw materials of her own life as experienced during the Russian Revolution.

Luckily, you don’t have to be a Tsvetaeva connoisseur to enjoy this show. This is about the guts and the brow of this famous artist, not a didactic study in poetics at all. According to my program notes, “the play is not specifically about her poetry, nor is it biographical. Rather it spins off the shards of the poet’s shattered, dramatic life as it was destroyed by a tumultuous period in Russia’s history.”

The star playing Tsvetaeva does not look like her. But Romanova captures the essence of this complex (and even frightening) artist, and there is much for our spirit to latch onto. I found the scene where her character converses with the poet Rainer Maria Rilke (Tosh Marks) utterly moving — and the innate beauty of Romanova’s voice is most evident here.

The scene takes poetic license with Tsvetaeva’s real-life correspondence with Rilke during the summer of 1926. These two major poets became soul mates, but never actually met. Nonetheless, their imaginative meeting on stage is theatrically satisfying and deeply affecting.

The life of Tsvetaeva is not easy to digest. In this show, a submerged nostalgia for Russia courses throughout the scenes, a palpable longing for a time before Stalin’s oppression. Still, the play never crosses over into sentimentality or mawkishness.

This play is, I think, a kind of settling of scores. One can begin to understand why Tsvetaeva is widely regarded in Russia as Stalin’s most prominent victim. But the bare, rude facts of her political torture are compassionately recast by the playwright here and presented in a fresh light. One of the ways this is achieved is through filmic flashbacks (Sergey Levchin) of the poet’s life, interspersed into pivotal scenes. Inevitably, much of the poet’s patina is scraped away, and you will see Tsvetaeva on her own terms.

Although the piece lacks narrative impact, I think it’s almost quibbling to say so. It’s like condemning the Metropolitan Museum of Art for having modern galleries with Cubist and Surrealist artists represented. One can only travel through this play as through a grotto, glimpsing murals of time-suspending wit and beauty.

Let me now turn about, and say that although this is a star vehicle for Romanova (and she plays the famous poet bewitchingly), there are other actors in this five-character play who hold their own on stage. Notable, in particular, are Alexander Rapoport, as the NKVD Officer in Act Two. Another good performance was turned in by Nuria Martinez Mendez, as Tsvetaeva’s lesbian poet lover Sophia Parnoc, who danced a mystical tango based on Tsvetaeva’s poem, “I’m glad your sickness is not of my will.”

One of the more psychologically revealing moments in the show portrays Tsvetaeva’s mother (Inna Leytush) at the piano, attempting to force her recalcitrant daughter to follow in her footsteps as a musician. This scene, although somewhat underwritten, gives flesh-and-blood to the dysfunctional relationship between Tsvetaeva and her well-meaning mother.

Who does inspire Tsvetaeva? At the end of her rope, quite literally in this play, she listens to her Muse (played by soprano Yulia Frenkel on opening night). This glowing emissary from the “Other World” is the better angel, decidedly. In contrast to the rigid, antiseptic mother, the Muse understands the province of a poet, and sings arias of comfort (Tsvetaeva’s own poems set to music by Dmitri Shostakovich).

“The Past is Still Ahead” works better as a dramatic piece, because of its broad musical motifs, original compositions (Margarita Zelenaia) and authentic world-class musicians performing their artistry in real-time. Eight classical musicians are represented on recordings, and their compositions are juxtaposed to the live music.

Under the dual direction of Romma and Rochaix, the play gives us, at last, a sober consideration of Tsvetaeva, and encapsulates her final days with gracefulness and honesty. Whether you like the famous Russian poet or not, she had a full set of attitudes toward society and life in the early 20th century, and her potent art remains her legacy.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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