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Dmitry Krymov takes play seriously.
"For me, the word 'game' is maybe the most important word in my work," the director says over the phone from his home Moscow, in a conversation that is as peppered with jokes as it is with philosophy.
In his show Opus No. 7, which runs at St. Ann's Warehouse Jan. 9-19, the director applies childlike techniques, like giant puppets and dancing pianos, to serious topics such as the history of Soviet oppression.
Opus No. 7 is presented in two parts. Genealogy takes on the legacy of Soviet Jews, whereas Shostakovich features the struggle that artists endured under Stalin.
"The first part is about many unhappy people, and the second part is about one very unhappy man who also happens to be a genius," says Krymov, who was initially unsure if the two pieces could be paired together in one show. Ultimately, Krymov believes the theme for Opus No. 7 exists not between the show's two halves but somewhere above them. "If we touch life behind us, perhaps it becomes a bit more clear about how we go ahead," he offers, before self-effacingly adding, "That sounds very clever but I didn't realize this until once we'd made the show!"
Krymov has a strong background in visual art. He started out as a set designer but left the theatre for the quiet of his studio. He was a painter, or what he calls a "normal artist," for 14 years before returning to theatre and founding the Dmitry Krymov Lab Moscow School of Dramatic Art in 2002.
The director's multi-genre background is reflected not only in his artistic oeuvre, but also in the people he works with. Krymov's first shows were performed by scenic designers. "They have a different organization in their minds and interesting behavior onstage," he says. Nevertheless, actors soon began to join the company and guest artists often pepper rehearsals. Still, roles onstage are often blurred: an actor becomes a musician, a clown becomes a technician before morphing into a dancer. Krymov admits, "We are a strange company." And a vehemently playful one. "If I feel like my work is like a game, then it's good. If not, something is wrong," he declares.
People aren't the only shape shifters in Krymov's world. In the second part of Opus No. 7, pianos do more than play music. As Shostakovich composes his seventh symphony in response to the Nazi invasion of Russia, the piano he uses becomes a tank on wheels.
"We use metal pianos," says Krymov, "and they crash all around Shostakovich. He would never use a tank like a machine, but I think he has complicated feelings about the piano. When I was a painter, I loved the canvas but I also hated the canvas. I wanted to see canvases, but I didn't want to see them. I think it's the same thing for a composer." And so Shostakovich is surrounded by an army piano nightmare. "Maybe the metaphor is a bit too clever," Krymov says with a chuckle.
However, American audiences needn't be historians or music buffs to appreciate Opus No. 7. "I love American audiences," Krymov enthuses. "They are always open, always ready for a game."
Eliza Bent is a playwright, performer, and journalist living in Brooklyn
Photo by Natalia Chaban