When Michael Kondziolka, programming director of the University Musical Society, witnessed Declan Donnelan’s 20th-century-style production of Pushkin’s “Boris Godunov,” he discovered what all the hype had been about. In the words of the Commersant, Donnelan had staged a “Boris Godunov” with “more theatricality, freedom, insight and vitality” than ever before. Kondziolka became determined to bring to Ann Arbor “the most important theater work by St. Petersburg ‘Literary Grandfather’ Alexander Pushkin,” in honor of the St. Petersburg-themed semester and the city’s 300th birthday. “It tells the story of the political struggles towards the founding of a national identity for Russia … a theme that plays very well with Peter the Great’s similar political intentions for the founding of St. Petersburg.”
Bringing to Ann Arbor an international production, set in Russia, with a 50-foot catwalk as a stage and seating on either side is no small feat. The simultaneous translation projections operate very similarly to subtitles at a foreign film. “Audiences will have immediate understanding of the works and actions” said Kondziolka, who made sure to add that “anyone who is concerned about seeing this production because it is in Russian, should be rest assured that they will have no difficulty understanding what is happening.”
Donnelan has become known for his ability to create an ensemble. Because actors constantly come and go and work primarily in an ensemble, the audience should focus on the experience and not on specific individuals.
Inspired by Shakespearean history plays, Pushkin wrote his only full-length play, “Boris Godunov,” in 1831. In the years leading up to the opening scene, Czar Ivan the Terrible dies and the throne is passed to his son Feodor, but his brother-in-law, Boris Godunov, effectively reigns. Relative calm rules until Dmitry, Ivan’s son, turns up dead. Godunov is quickly implicated.
“Boris” begins in 1598 with the Russian people imploring Boris Godunov to take the crown. A few years later a frustrated and impatient monk (Grigory) learns that he is about the same age as Feodor would have been had he lived, and determines that if Boris can seize power, so can he. What ensues is a story about power hand-over, with money, corruption, sex, blood and betrayal.
Though traditionally treated as a tragedy, Pushkin includes many comical elements that Donellan plays upon. However, Donellan’s direction is far too insightful to get labeled into narrow djamre. He said, “I don’t divide plays into comic and tragic. Great plays are both. In my ‘Boris Godunov’ I tried to tell important things as easily as possible.”