The Emperor Has No Clothes: ‘Masquerade’ Was a Smug, Misogynistic Mess


Presented by Cherry Orchard Festival
Produced by Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre of Russia
Based on the ‘verse drama’ by Mikhail Lermontov
Directed by Rimas Tuminas
Set Design by Adomas Yatsovskis
Costumes by Maxim Obrezkov
English Subtitles by Ivan Samokhin

June 18—19, 2019
Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre
Boston, MA 02116
Cherry Orchard Festival on Facebook

Critique by Diana Lu

(Boston, Mass.) My program calls Masquerade a “verse drama.” That’s about the most pretentious thing I’ve ever seen. Even Shakespeare just wrote “plays.” Other reviewers keep comparing this 19thcentury Russian romantic play to Shakespeare’s Othello. I’m sure writer Mikhail Lermontov filched his basic plot points from The Bard, but the similarities end there.

Masquerade’s central character is Arbenin Evgeny Aleksandrovich (Evgeny Knyazev), an aging self-made tycoon prone to nihilism, narcissism, and rage. His adoring wife Nina (Maria Volkova), attends a masquerade ball, where she loses a bracelet, which Baroness Shtral (Lidia Velezheva) finds and, during a masked flirtation, gives to Prince Zvezdich (Leonid Bichevin). Zvezdich thinks Nina was the masked woman and pursues her, even though she is married.

This case of mistaken identity (another Shakespearean trope) sets off a sequence of unfortunate events. Arbenin sees Nina’s missing bracelet and assumes infidelity. The jealous baroness spreads rumors of Nina and Zvezdich’s illicit affair, fanning Arbenin’s paranoia that all of Petersburg knows his shame as a cuckold husband. Arbenin kills Nina, only to find out from a Stranger (Yury Shlykov) he once wronged, that she was innocent all along, and goes mad.

There are three key disparities between Othello and Masquerade that make them fundamentally different stories, and Othello the consummately superior of the two.

First, nihilism makes for poor dramaturgy. In Othello, the main character is Iago. He has the strongest want out of all the characters, and it’s his action that propels all the events of the play. In Masquerade, THERE IS NO IAGO. His character is split between The Baroness and The Stranger. The latter is a passive observer and the former’s motivations are unrelated to Arbenin.   The cause of the series of events of Masquerade is random. Cause and effect driven by the motivation of the main character(s) are essential to effective dramaturgy. This was absent in Masquerade. Furthermore, Arbenin, being a petulant nihilist who thinks life is meaningless and can’t care about anything including his wife, is as boring and unsympathetic a character as you can get.

Second, Othello is sociological storytelling. Othello is an examination of how strongly sociological perceptions can impact (and destroy) even the greatest, strongest individuals. How The Moor began, a revered and sophisticated gentleman, to how he ended, a lascivious and brutish killer, was the direct result of Iago exploiting systemic racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia to reduce a much more powerful man to a heap of ugly stereotypes.

There is no such wider metaphor in Masquerade. Arbenin is a rich Russian man, the height of privilege. His rival is impotent and passive throughout the play. His downfall is completely caused by his own emotional fragility, which, he, of course, tries to resolve by enacting violence on women. Comparing Othello to Masquerade in this frame makes the latter look petty to blame “the society rumor mill” for Arbenin’s toxic psychology. It makes sense considering Lermontov wrote this when he was 21. The whole thing is just some rich, white boy’s self-indulgent, fan-fic drivel. Comparison to Twilight or 50 Shades of Grey would be more apropos.

Third, in Masquerade, there’s a lot of snow. (That’s a joke.)

Rimas Tuminas’ production for Vakhtangov was the most pretentious and deeply misogynistic performances I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been to Cirque de Soleil.

The action scenes were intercut with up to 10-minute, untranslated comedic segments that had absolutely nothing to do with the story. At one point, a modern hockey player skated onstage and then back off with no explanation, and was never referenced again. Was the point to reinforce the philosophy that nothing matters and life is meaningless? As a performer myself, I can tell you that it takes an extra special kind of asshole to line the walls with all of Chekov’s guns and not fire any of them by the end of the play.

The female characters were all completely flat objects on which the male characters enacted their will, especially Nina. Only the Baroness had any kind of motivation, but as the proxy for everything bad about Russian society, the implication seems to be that women are evil and out to destroy men. Her monologue about the rights of women was obnoxiously undercut by a string of the other female characters repeating her lines in increasingly silly and grotesque caricatures until her words were absolutely meaningless (those were the only lines most of the women actors had). This was a directorial decision. I can only imagine the kind of misogynistic perspective that stages a production like this. It draws a similarity to one that thinks grabbing someone by the pussy is a fine joke (Zvezdich grabs the Baroness by the breast onstage as a flirtation).

The one redeeming quality of the entire show was the brilliant acting performances by everyone in the cast. It was quite enthralling to see these actors chew the dramatic scenery and clown harder than a Juggalo during ICP festival. To do such great work with the crap material they had to work with was pure stagecraft magic. Again, the women actors were heinously underutilized, and I assume grossly underpaid as a result.

It also didn’t escape my attention that most other reviews, except this detailed and excellent recap, were sycophantic to the point of calling the mangled English of the supertitles “inviting” and “easy to excuse.” Every time I’ve been to a play in which a non-white person has spoken in non-English, reviewers have called it “frustrating” or “difficult to follow.” So thank you, Theatre Establishment, for once again showing your true colors (white and male). It’s good to see that the petit bourgeois has not changed in two hundred years. If Tolstoy were alive today, I can safely say that he would be shitting all over you.

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