'Gaudeamus' exposes horror, humor of army life

by David Lelesi | 11/10/94 6:00am

The snow-covered stage of the newly named and renovated Lansing Porter Moore Theater was the setting for "Gaudeamus," the highly acclaimed production by the Maly Drama Theatre company from St. Petersburg, Russia last night.

Magically, the stage drew confident, unique men into its trapdoor-ridden floor and returned an army of wary, uniformed men back to the stage, having sapped their individuality.

The Maly Drama production of "Gaudeamus" had arrived. Combining dance, drama, music and improvisation, the legendary company examined minority persecution and exploitation in the Red Army prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Conceived and created by Maly director Lev Dodin, "Gaudeamus," a docudrama and satire based on Sergei Kaledin's banned 1988 novella "Construction of the Batallion," incorporates improvisations created by actors during rehearsals. It tells a fictional account of the horrors of life in the Red Army.

The music and spectacle form a potent mixture of reality and surreality as the absurdity of army life is evoked. Though this theme is universal, the Maly's interpretation is unique in its blend of art forms. The work is performed in Russian but is made understandable through supertitles.

The cast of about 20 ingeniously expresses the ridiculousness of such routines as saluting an officer or shoveling manure with slapstick humor that strangely coheres with the somber atmosphere of the piece.

This absurdity reaches its peak when the captain (Alexander Koshkarev) delivers a pitiful sermon about alchohol abuse. He takes the audience to depths thought unreachable as he cautions his men not to choke on their own vomit after drinking too much.

The men he addresses stand behind him as he repeats his advice to an imaginary army in front of him -- with implications for the audience. The frustration and anger the captain displays in this scene is matched only by the strange euphoria that ultimately arises out of its humor.

First the play slowly slips into the dark realms of murder, rape and suicide. The actors capture this bleakness by increasing the emotional intensity of the final scenes. Desperation increases as the men and women look for ways to escape the army's harsh reality. The monotony of military life leads to a frenzied use of drugs and alchohol, and to violent abuse.

But this agony is transformed into an odd sense of elation as balloons ascend from the stage. The actors then smash the balloons in a cleansing rage that proves cathartic for the audience as well.

The characters, no longer powerless against the repressive forces that controlled them, sink below the stage in the final scene. They sing "Gaudeamus," a deeply sentimental student song about the fleeting pleasures of youth: "To all those fine years our youth has given us," in a fitting close to this unique production.

Tickets for "Gaudeamus" cost $15 for students and $25 for the general public and are available at the Hopkins Center Box Office.

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