Watching Gogol as the Grad Rockets Fly

One theater troupe's fight to bring fine art to the Donetsk People's Republic.

Photo by JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images

DONETSK, Ukraine — It was a cold, gray afternoon in late October. On the central square, teenagers handed out flags of the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic, while watched closely by armed men in camouflage. Heavy shelling from the suburbs shook windows in their frames, but members of the small crowd at the Donetsk National Academic Ukrainian Musical and Drama Theater, facing the square, pretended not to notice as they filed in for a Sunday matinee performance.

As they trooped in, they passed a printed sign at the playhouse’s columned entrance. Written in flowery Russian, it read: "Please do not bring means of attack and defense with you." Not everyone listens, of course: The actors say they have seen men in the audience who failed to leave their weapons at the door.

Such are the perils of performing at the Donetsk National Academic Ukrainian Musical and Drama Theater, where, against all odds — despite armed men in the audience, a nightly curfew that allows for only weekend matinee performances, even an announcement from the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture that the troupe no longer exists — the show must go on.

"We have to keep ourselves going somehow and get away from this war," said one of the ticket-holders, Tatiana Telnova, a thin, fair woman in her 40s, who told me she had lost both home and job in the last few months after her house was hit by shelling and her building firm closed. "It’s very hard, but we try to cheer ourselves up," she said, hurrying away from my questions and up the theater stairs to where a string quartet played Bach and an actor in a velvet frock coat waited to usher her into the auditorium.

As Telnova and the rest of the audience waited expectantly, the props assistant did her last-minute check. "Everything in its right place, everything just so," she murmured as she tiptoed around the darkened set, straightening a folded waistcoat, making sure there was water in a carafe. Satisfied that all was well, she tiptoed out again, and the stage was set for a two-hour performance of Three Jokes, Anton Chekhov’s humane and witty trilogy of one-acts about loving and not-so-loving couples.

The drama theater, housed in a grand neoclassical building in central Donetsk, is engaged in a valiant effort to bring performance art to a war zone. Offstage, Russian-backed separatists and the Kiev government are fighting for who will govern eastern Ukraine. The theater had to close its doors in July when the company, along with most of the population, fled as the Ukrainian army attempted to retake Donetsk. After a cease-fire was declared, the theater reopened on Oct. 11 with a sold-out performance of Nikolai Gogol’s Marriage. Successive shows have also been sold out, but even the thick theater walls cannot completely shut out the sound of the ongoing shelling that belies any notion of a cease-fire and continues to claim civilian lives.

"We really need the theater now," actor Andrey Yershov, 31, told me, describing the standing ovation and flowers from the audience that the company has received for its performances. "It’s a lot more pleasant than what’s happening outside in the streets right now."

Not everyone welcomed the theater’s return. In an interview in October with a Ukrainian news site, Ukrainian Culture Minister Yevhen Nyschuk said the municipal theater company was prohibited from performing since if it performed plays in Ukrainian, instead of Russian, in rebel-held Donetsk, "they would simply be shot." He said the Culture Ministry planned to dispatch the company on tour, minus sets and costumes, to areas under Ukrainian control so that it could earn some money, since state salaries in Donetsk are no longer being paid, and claimed that the theater’s announced autumn season actually consists of performances by a visiting Russian company — an assertion that the actors in Donetsk say is untrue, and deeply offensive.

"We’ve been here for four months with no salary, but as far as Kiev is concerned, we don’t exist. How can I believe anything Kiev says after that?" said actor Maxim Zhdanovych at a backstage party after the Chekhov performance. He was celebrating his debut playing a butler and a hypochondriac in love with his neighbor, played by his real-life wife, actor Oksana Plyukha, also making her debut.

Nyschuk’s comments speak to the theater’s place on the cultural front lines of a war, which for many here stems from the new Ukrainian government’s aborted proposal to repeal a 2012 law allowing Russian to be used as a second state language. This move, with the help of Russian propaganda, has achieved mythical status in eastern Ukraine as a "fascist" attempt by Kiev to repress Russian-speakers. The question of language primacy remains deeply felt in Donetsk. Schools under separatist control are switching to Russian curricula, and some people in Kiev, like the culture minister, claim that the Ukrainian language is being actively repressed in rebel-held territory.

Since the 1960s, Ukrainian- and Russian-language troupes played side by side in the Donetsk drama theater, like one of Chekhov’s more loving couples. The theater continued to bring Ukrainian-language performances to largely Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine until the crisis this year. The actors I spoke to insisted that Ukrainian language and culture are not under threat and that they would continue to perform in Ukrainian. But their new season also happens to consist only of plays in Russian.

Many of these are classics of Russian theater by Chekhov, Mikhail Bulgakov (born in Kiev, died in Moscow), and Gogol (a Ukrainian who wrote in Russian). But at the end of November, actor Maxim Selivanov, 27, is due to appear in the French comedy thriller Bachelor Trap, which was last performed in Donetsk in May. At the climax, Selivanov has to fire a revolver out into the audience, and he says he is concerned about the potential reaction, after having seen gunmen in the theater. "It’s scary to shoot in times of war," he said. "What if there’s someone in the audience who’s armed on the night?" But the main reason this play is held up is not the shooting scene, but because it is in the process of being translated from Ukrainian into Russian.

"That’s what everyone speaks here" was Selivanov’s explanation.

In addition to language problems, the theater is working under a staffing shortage. Some of those who have fled the city were members of the theater’s once 250-strong troupe. The Chekhov performance had an added poignancy, not only because its war of words between couples reminded some in the audience of what is often described as a family feud or divorce between brother nations Ukraine and Russia, but because Zhdanovych and Plyukha were replacing two much-loved actors who have permanently left Donetsk for opposite sides in the conflict — one to Russia and one to western Ukraine.

Those who have remained behind have had to take on extra roles or in some cases do double duty as actors and directors. Although all profits from ticket sales are supposed to go directly to paying staff, actors and stagehands say they are currently working "for applause" since their Ukrainian state salaries were cut off in June.

"I sold my gold," a glamorous blond actor named Yelena Martynova told me, showing me her ringless fingers, when I asked how she was surviving without wages. It sounded like a line from Zoya’s Apartment, another play in the company’s repertoire — a satirical commentary on 1920s post-civil war Moscow by Bulgakov, in which Martynova plays an aristocrat turned brothel owner. But Martynova, like most of the actors, tries to avoid comment on current events. "We’re patriots of our city and patriots of our theater," she said, when I asked why she had come back to Donetsk. "The theater is above politics. It’s our home."

For actor Yershov, this is literally true. He and his wife, a voice coach, and their 1-year-old baby can’t go back to their house in the suburbs because it is on the front line. Other employees’ homes, as well as a hostel owned by the theater, have been damaged or destroyed by shelling, so some 20 adults and five children are living in the theater, making a home for themselves in dressing rooms where jars of homemade pickled tomatoes are stacked alongside tubes of stage makeup. Although the theater cannot currently pay wages, it does provide meals and two rooms with volunteer teachers and caretakers where employees’ children lead a strange backstage existence, muffled from shelling and surrounded by mirrors and theater posters.

Yershov joined the troupe straight out of drama school in the neighboring city of Dnipropetrovsk. For 12 years it provided him with a good, regular salary and an apartment. "I really fell in love with the theater, and it has really helped me," he said.

We were sitting in the empty 700-seat main auditorium two days after the Chekhov performance, as Yershov took a break from his role during a rehearsal of Zoya’s Apartment. One actor was slipping in and out of character, hopping on and off stage as he doubled up as a director trying to ease Selivanov’s wife, Viktoria, into a new part, replacing an absent performer. The rest of the cast practiced a manic fox trot around them, playing Bulgakov’s women driven to prostitution after a civil war. Piano music almost drowned out Yershov’s voice.

"Donetsk was such a strong company, and then what was built up over years all fell to pieces within the last six months," he told me. "It’s really painful to watch."

What is left of the company had celebrated Zhdanovych and Plyukha’s Chekhov debut two days earlier with vodka shots and sausage sandwiches. But backstage stories soon descended into bewildered argument about the world beyond the playhouse.

As Selivanov worried out loud about pretending to shoot into a crowd and as others talked of acquaintances who have taken up real guns to fight on the side of the rebel republic, Vladimir Shvets reflected on his mixed Ukrainian and Russian parentage and his place in the fight. "Where can I shoot — in what direction? I have blood on both sides," he said. Shvets is a decorated artist of Ukraine, his fellow actors told me proudly. For Shvets, that distinction has become a source of angst. "I received awards from that country, and now it has started to destroy everything I love," he said.

As the vodka bottle emptied, the bitterness against Kiev became more pronounced. Couples like the Selivanovs who had met through the theater and generations of those who’ve spent their lives around the playhouse, from Zhdanovych and Plyukha’s toddler son to Zhdanovych’s mother, a director in the Donetsk puppet theater, argued and grieved until it was time — for those still with homes to go back to — to leave before the night’s curfew. They waded from the cozy glamour of the dressing rooms into the cold streets outside, where the shelling never quite stops, where no one leaves their guns at the door, where it is impossible to pretend there is not a war going on.

"Before, we believed in many things," Plyukha said, as the party broke up. "Now we only believe in one thing — each other."

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