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Princeton Weekly Bulletin   March 5, 2007, Vol. 96, No. 18   prev   next   current

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Creative Connections: ‘Godunov’ project driven by scholarly, artistic collaborations

Princeton NJ — Honoring a legendary Russian director’s unfulfilled vision for a classic tale of power and intrigue, an army of Princeton scholars and artists is working this semester to mount a world premiere production of “Boris Godunov.”

Bringing this new interpretation of the famed Russian play to the stage is a creative team with dozens of members from numerous disciplines, including faculty experts in Russian music and literature, seasoned music, theater and dance professionals, and student actors, singers, dancers, musicians and architects. The production is accompanied by several academic initiatives, including courses, an international symposium and a Firestone Library exhibition (see “By the numbers” in this issue).


Director Tim Vasen (top right) works with students in rehearsal. (photo: Denise Applewhite)

The Princeton premiere, which runs April 12-14 at the Berlind Theatre, is inspired by a version of Alexander Pushkin’s 1825 historical play that was conceived by director Vsevolod Meyerhold but abandoned in the 1930s. Though Pushkin’s play about the Russian tyrant is one of his most famous works, the full text of “Godunov” never has received a first-class staging in English. The Princeton production also will feature a new translation by Antony Wood as well as an original score by composer Sergei Prokofiev that was commissioned by Meyerhold but never has been used for a live performance of “Godunov.”

The project exemplifies Princeton’s mission to enhance the role of the creative and performing arts on campus, which resulted last year in the establishment of the University Center for the Creative and Performing Arts. The center is the major sponsor of the production, along with several departments and offices across campus.

Tim Vasen, a lecturer in the Program in Theater and Dance who is directing “Godunov,” said the scholarly and artistic collaborations are “unprecedented and completely extraordinary.”

“I really don’t think this kind of thing could happen anywhere but at a university like Princeton. At least in this country, there is no theater company that has these resources to offer,” Vasen said. “Back when Meyerhold was creating the original idea for this production, most theaters would have had their own orchestra and a large company of actors and dancers — that was normal, but now would be almost an absurd luxury.

“For me, it’s absolutely thrilling,” he added. “I love collaboration, and I love learning about new areas of the world every time I do a play. This is a quantum leap in that regard, so I’m having a fantastic time.”

A multifaceted effort

The “Godunov” project is managed by Simon Morrison, an associate professor of music who has tracked down lost scores and choreographies by Prokofiev and other artists, and Caryl Emerson, chair of the Slavic languages and literatures department and a leading authority on Pushkin’s play (see “From dissertations” on page 5). It is a collaboration between the University and the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art.

The play is accompanied by several initiatives in this multifaceted project. In addition to their rehearsals six times a week, student cast members are participating in a course led by Vasen and Michael Cadden, director of the Program in Theater and Dance. Emerson is teaching two courses — one for undergraduates and one for graduate students — on Pushkin, Meyerhold and Prokofiev. She and Morrison also are leading an alumni studies course focused on the production. A Firestone Library exhibition devoted to the project will open April 1. An international symposium on Pushkin, Prokofiev and Russian theater is slated for April 12-14 to coincide with the premiere.

“This is something that no members of the cast have ever experienced,” said freshman Nadia Talel.

“It’s a different type of theater, it’s a play in which many of us get to play different genders and different roles, and it’s something the University has been working on for a long time. One of the best things about this production is it’s so interdepartmental,” said Talel, whose roles will include the patriarch (who encourages Godunov’s ascension to the Russian throne), a lady at a party, an old woman and a Polish gentleman named Sobanski.

“Professor Emerson comes every Friday to our seminar and gives us a lot of history and background,” she added. “This is a culture and time period with which many of us are unfamiliar, and we get a lot of different perspectives from the people working on it.”

Pushkin’s play dramatizes Godunov’s rise to power, his increasingly tyrannical reign as czar from 1598 to 1605 and the challenge to his throne by Dmitry the Pretender, who claimed to be a son of Ivan the Terrible. For political as well as dramatic reasons, Pushkin’s play was not approved for performance until 1866 and then was adapted into an opera by composer Modest Musorgsky between 1869 and 1874.

Meyerhold, who became a seminal figure in modern theater through his innovative productions, attempted to stage “Godunov” in 1924-25 and in 1936 but abandoned his efforts in the face of Stalinist Soviet politics. He was arrested on fabricated charges of treason in 1939 and shot a year later.


Peter Westergaard is providing new music for a crucial dreamlike scene that composer Sergei Prokofiev did not complete. (photo: Denise Applewhite)

Prokofiev’s score was written for Meyerhold’s production in 1936, when the composer “was in top form,” according to Morrison. The University Orchestra, which will perform in the April production under the direction of Michael Pratt, presented the North American premiere of this score in concert in December as a preview.

“The music needs the play,” Morrison said. “Prokofiev intended it as an acoustic lining and filter for Pushkin’s spoken words.”

Student singers from the University Glee Club, conducted by Richard Tang Yuk, will serve as the choir for the Princeton production. “The ‘above and beyond the call of duty’ involvement of the two conductors, Michael Pratt and Richard Tang Yuk, is crucial to this project, which comprises a true synthesis of the musical with the verbal and visual,” Morrison said. “Coordination and timing are everything.”

Emerson said the Princeton project benefits from the interdisciplinary partnerships and the experience of previous theatrical adaptations at the University, as well as technological advances since Pushkin wrote the play and Meyerhold planned his production a century later. Both the playwright and director also knew that their visions for the politically charged production could not be realized in their times.

“Pushkin’s play features monks — and drunken monks at that — as well as the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, and Pushkin knew that the imperial censorship did not permit the portrayal of ecclesiastics on stage. He dreamed of a kind of production that technically and physically and politically couldn’t have happened in his time,” Emerson said. “I think Pushkin would have adored the Princeton production.”


The 13-member cast plays some 60 different parts. In this scene rehearsal, (from left) freshman Adam Zivkovic portrays Dmitry the Pretender, junior Kelechi Ezie is a tavern hostess, and junior John Travis and sophomore Sam Zetumer play drunken monks. (photo: Denise Applewhite)

While they are working from Meyerhold’s extensive notes on his concept of the production, the members of Princeton’s creative team have more flexibility in exploring the historical period that led to Russia’s “Time of Troubles,” Emerson noted.

“The Russian audience for whom Meyerhold directed knew Pushkin by heart, so it was impossible to leave something out. Indeed, omitting lines and scenes would actually draw attention to them, since Pushkin’s words are part of the inner soundscape of Russian speakers,” she said. “Americans in 2007 do not carry around that equipment. These risks are marvelous ones to confront — the actors, set designers, musicians and producers really are free.”

‘Intellectual firepower’

Vasen said both Emerson and Morrison have been essential in “helping me to understand the artistic impulses behind the writing, the music and the direction. It is a production deeply rooted both in historical Russia and the Russia of the 1930s. I knew very little about that, and they have been fantastic guides in helping me to understand where this play came from and where the music came from and how it all goes together.

“Caryl brings history to life like nobody I’ve ever worked with. Everything in the play is based on detailed historical research Pushkin did. There is a back story to every character, even somebody who appears in the play for two lines, and Caryl knows that back story. That is incredibly helpful because even though the audience is not necessarily going to be able to get all of that, it will make the experience that much richer for the student actors and for all of us,” he said.

Cadden, who is serving as the production’s dramaturg, added, “We wanted to take advantage of the intellectual firepower we have here at Princeton. We feel fortunate to be the beneficiary of their lives’ work as scholars.”

These creative collaborations suffuse every aspect of the production. Because existing recordings are either incomplete or inaccurate, the Princeton team is working with the archival manuscript of Prokofiev’s score. For one scene that Prokofiev did not complete, Princeton composer Peter Westergaard is providing new music. Westergaard, an emeritus professor of music, is paraphrasing authentic Russian liturgical chants to create a supernatural musical backdrop for a crucial dreamlike scene, in which the young monk Grigory Otrepiev begins his transformation into Dmitry the Pretender to challenge Godunov for Russia’s throne.

Vasen said, “I’m working with a great living composer, a great composer from 100 years ago, a great writer from 200 years ago and amazing history from 400 years ago.”

For the production’s main dance scene, students will perform two traditional Polish pieces: a polonaise, which is a stately, procession-like dance; and a mazurka, which is a lively folk dance. Choreographer Rebecca Lazier, associate head of dance, said she is excited about trying to infuse these traditional dances with a more modern flair.

“Tim’s vision for the production is really wanting to find ways to do it for today, for this audience and this time,” Lazier said.


Some 50 costumes are being made for the play’s colorful collection of aristocrats, monks, military figures, peasants and other characters. (photo: Denise Applewhite)

Lazier said that, similar to the 2005 Princeton production of the lost Russian ballet “Pas d’Acier,” the “Godunov” project “is a true immersion into another world. That’s part of the gift of it — to be able to take the time to submerge myself in the history, in the literature, in the ideas, in all the layers that go into the production. One of the challenges about this production, as it is the world premiere, is how to invigorate the aesthetic with a sense of contemporary life.”

“The process will very much be with the dancers,” she said. “There are prescribed steps of how a polonaise and a mazurka are defined. So it will be about taking that prescription, taking those ideas and playing with them for hours to find variations and new versions. Can I find a new version that is a lift, a jump or a turn? That’s how I imagine bringing my own contemporary aesthetic to this work.”

In outfitting the “Godunov” cast, Catherine Cann, costume shop manager in theater and dance, also is working to balance Meyerhold’s vision with the need to appeal to a modern audience. She has consulted with Vasen, Emerson and Morrison to better understand the history of the play and Meyerhold’s artistic inspiration.

“There are many different worlds in the play, and the idea is to help the audience understand why those worlds are important and how they relate to each other — especially in this case, because we’re trying to do this through the eyes of Meyerhold and to bring a new perspective to historical events,” Cann said. “That does come across in clothes — in how much fabric people wear or what colors they’re wearing.”

Cann also studied the costumes from Musorgsky’s operatic version of “Godunov,” which Meyerhold disliked, to determine “what bothered him about it and why he thought it was so vile.”

Cann said, “In the opera, the costumes are re-enacting history to visualize the events as accurately as humanly possible. In the Pushkin play, and in our production, we are using costumes to depict character and stature so that our contemporary audience will understand the history.” Emerson added that this concept “is perfect for a play about a pretender to the throne in a culture that believed in external ‘signs’ for everything.”


This model shows the set designed by graduate students in an architecture seminar last fall. The set features some 150 pieces of surgical tubing that run vertically throughout the stage, as well as scaffolding along the back of the stage. (photo: Denise Applewhite)

Because each cast member plays several parts — some 50 costumes will have to be made — Cann is designing a “worker-like” base costume for each actor, from which they can quickly transform into aristocrats, monks, military figures, peasants or other characters. “We’re actually making more costumes than we have for other theater productions, partly because of their stylized nature,” she said.

The play’s action — 25 scenes, each in a different location — will take place on a set designed by students as part of a graduate seminar last fall led by Jesse Reiser, an associate professor of architecture, in partnership with Vasen. Five of the seminar’s 15 students are working this spring to help build the unusual set, which features some 150 pieces of surgical tubing that run vertically throughout the stage, attached to tracks in the floor. The tubes can be pulled together or apart, and actors can climb them as well.

“The set creates the most flexible, dynamic environment we could imagine for this play,” Vasen said. “It’s a jungle gym, with all the playfulness that implies. I think it’ll also be better able to tell the story than a more realistic set — one with walls and doors that look like Russia. Even if we’d wanted to go that route, there are way too many locations to illustrate. We’ll be able to project supertitles and images that will give the very concrete sense of place our audience will need to know what’s going on, while staying true to Meyerhold’s insights about the power of abstraction and theatricality.”

Vasen said the set, like so many elements of the production, was “the result of a bunch of different people bringing ideas to the table and synthesizing them down to a few really simple, really dynamic things.”

“It was kind of scary in some ways because there was a long period of time that we didn’t even know if there was going to be a set because they couldn’t put it all together,” Vasen said. “But it does what I wanted it to do, which requires a very physical production.”

Tickets can be purchased by visiting the McCarter Theatre Center box office, calling 258-ARTS or visiting For more information about the “Godunov” project, visit

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