I can’t say honestly that I was sitting in the BAM Harvey Theatre thrilled at the premise of a 2 hour and 15 minute intermission-less German tragedy spoken in Russian with English subtitles, but the visually arresting production snaps you wide awake. Beginning with angular lines of light, passion is flung with abandonment across a table top, sucking you in with the same drive and force shown. The simple, elegant, and structured staging by Lev Dodin, artistic director of the Maly Drama Theatre-Theater of Europe, can’t be ignored or shoved aside for its use of subtitles and language. It’s bold and hard, with fire and force. Deceitful and demanding, the Russian adaptation, also by Dodin, of Friedrich Schiller’s Love and Intrigue is both titular parts smashed together like the lips of the proud and fiery Major Ferdinand Von Walter, son of the President, when they collide almost aggressively with the young and beautiful Luise Miller, daughter of the poor music teacher. It contains every ounce of hot-headed intensity, balanced with proud intellectualism that is only heightened by the emotionally persuasive Russian being spoken by this most excellent group of actors. The words fly hard and strong at each other, almost like punches, slaps, or passionate aggressive love-making. Even without the subtitles, the raw power of love, status, and sex would be hard to miss.
Taking on the imbalances of societal class and status, Love and Intrigue is a work of structured symmetrical construction, ordered and functioning in a world outside of our own. The German text plays in a way with the idea of pure love, something akin to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, but without the soft caresses of youthful adoration. Scholars refer to this tale as a bourgeois tragedy with the two opposing families not particularly at war with one another, but simply inhabiting different classes in society. Both are against the union of these two, but one for the sake of power and the other out of fear and trepidation. You see, the President, played stoically by Igor Chernevich (or Igor Ivanov on alternate nights), in an attempt to secure his position of influence with the all-powerful Duke, attempts to orchestrate a fortuitous marriage between his son, the hot-headed and somewhat self-absorbed idealist, Ferdinand, played with every hot burner on full fire by the handsome Danila Kozlovsky, and the Duke’s sensual and graceful mistress, the Lady Milford, played with an equal level of exciting engagement by the lovely and elegant Ksenya Rappoport. Their chemistry is outrageously electric in their erotic dance and debate, raising the stakes as to what is desired. However, Ferdinand caring less about social class, power dynamics, and parental influences, has proclaimed a maddening and deep love for the poor but beautiful young Luise, played with an achingly strong conviction to honor and righteousness by the lovely Elizaveta Boyarskaya. In accordance with Enlightenment tradition, Ferdinand denies his father, stating with true conviction that he despises the schemes of the courtly world and the injustice, inhumanity and immorality of his father’s idea of order and power, and will marry only for true and absolute love. Even if she is of a lower class.
Sliding and parading on and around an orderly arrangement of table tops, designed with what feels like a nod towards insecure power, influence, and the grandeur of temporary position, by Alexander Borovsky, with intense lighting by Damir Ismagilov, the dynamic and romantic tragedy escalates in a blaze of unfathomable jealousy and deceitfulness once the secretary and confidante of the President, the spineless schemer Wurm, played with an off-handed creepiness by Oleg Dmitriev (or Igor Chernevich on alternate nights) gets involved. Wurm, a man who would do anything for wealth and prestige, concocts an insidious plot to destroy the love between Ferdinand and Luise. Colluding with the selfishly arrogant President, he suggests using the young girl’s parents, played fascinatingly by Sergey Kuryshey and Tatiana Shestakova, as a persuasive tool and devise, locking them both away and holding their freedom in front of Luise as bait. With that dangling in front of her, Wurm threatens and forces the young girl to write an insincere love letter addressed to himself (wishful thinking on Wurm’s behalf) that will be used to evoke a jealous rage and despair within Ferdinand’s heart and mind. Luise is forced to swear an oath to God to state if anyone asks, that she wrote the letter of her own free will. In a strikingly powerful line, Wurm and the President state that those of the less powerful class will hold to their binding oath in honor, in a way that the upper class would never abide by, especially if it took them away from what they want. Sounds like another monster who calls himself ‘President’, don’t you think? Collusion. Betrayal. Lies. Deceit. All in the name of power.
Morality and religious pressure are laid out on those tables for all of us to see by an army of white-clad servants and soldiers. Luise has only her silence and the lie required by the oath to counter the charges against her, and the letter does its job created unfounded jealousy in the idealist’s heart. Obsessed by the idea of absolute love, the letter grabs hold of its victims punishing them for their foolishness of idealized love. In a beautiful but somewhat clumsily crafted scene, Luise and the Lady Milford parry against one another using all forms of status and belief structures at their disposal, with pure or true love triumphing in the end. Rappoport’s Lady Milford can sell a strong story of struggle like no other, but can not win a war against Luise’s sure-footed faith. Luise is ultimately released from her secrecy, but the cost for the two is powerful and strongly brewed by glorious candlelight. Forgiveness and the acceptance of desire and truth comes on trays and tables laid out by white tuxedo wearing servants, but it is slow in the making, just like the strong drinks served. The German drama, translated to Russian by Nikolay Liubimov never quite rises to the rapturous lyrical beauty of a Shakespearian romantic tragedy, but it does rest quite robustly in the solid Russian landscape and expanse of the stage. Parading and adding dimension and detail in places unexpected. It never truly captivates the heart lacking some sort of tenderness in its kiss as it flings itself forward, but it does manage to enlist our intellect with a worthwhile hard and almost suffocating embrace. I’d gladly dance off with the glorious Lady Milford to that wonderfully quirky music by Ludwig van Beethoven, naturally, for another sumptuous meal at that finely laid out table, if I had the opportunity, as Love and Intrigue proved energetically epic and intense.