December 11, 2007

For Tortured Russian Poet, a Life of Drama and Despair (New York Times Review)

The Russian poet Marina Tsvetayeva endured and indulged in a life of high drama. One of her young daughters died of starvation during the famine that followed the Russian Revolution. A lover of both men and women, she followed her White Russian husband into exile in Europe, then returned after he was accused of changing sides and spying for the Soviets. Impoverished and spied on by Soviet secret agents, she hanged herself in 1941.

“The Past Is Still Ahead,” an odd little play about her life presented by the Mayakovsky Academic Art Theater of Moscow, replaces this drama with two seemingly incompatible stereotypes: the tortured poet and Natasha from “Rocky and Bullwinkle.” 

Yelena Romanova, left, and Tosh Marks in “The Past Is Still Ahead.” The play is based on the life of Marina Tsvetayeva.Credit...Jonathan Slaff

In life, Tsvetayeva was not a great beauty. But here she is glamour itself, portrayed by the throaty-voiced actress Yelena Romanova in a long, glossy wig, enormous false eyelashes and a black velvet dress, a performance of rolling eyes and oversize gestures. 

The play, by the Russian-born, American-based Sophia Romma, is adapted from a monologue by the Israeli Oded Be’eri. Its single-character roots still show, as Tsvetayeva recites the events of her life. The added characters unfortunately include a white-robed Muse, who occasionally walks onstage and sings, as if she had wandered away from her choir. Tosh Marks plays Rainer Maria Rilke (who corresponded with Tsvetayeva, although the two poets never met) with a stilted delivery. 

Even if the play were less clichéd, there would be no way to survive Ms. Romanova’s halting delivery and heavily accented English. Occasionally you can glimpse the soul of a poet struggling to emerge. “I am a torture to myself,” Tsvetayeva announces in true despair toward the end of her life. But you never stop expecting her to say, in her best Natasha voice, “Boh-ris, Dahlink, vee must keel moose and squirrel.”

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