The Next Stage

In Lithuanian director Eimontas Nekrosius' plays, spaces between words once held sly digs at Soviet authorities. Today, tiring of the rub, he looks to fill the spaces in his life.

June 06, 2000|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

VILNIUS, Lithuania - The curtain rises on a "Macbeth" with much of the dialogue and half the characters thrown out, and it was already Shakespeare's shortest play. No matter. The curtain doesn't fall again for another four hours.

It's the spaces between the words that count when director Eimontas Nekrosius puts on a play - and there are plenty of them. Once, when he was a young man and his foes were Soviet censors, his audiences could fill those spaces with sharp and revelatory political meanings. But for the past decade, politics has been banished to the newspapers. Now, with Shakespeare himself as his antagonist, Nekrosius is looking to fill those spaces with something else, with visual meditations on weakness, destiny and sin.

For 10 full minutes, the three witches - the Weird Sisters, who aren't weird at all but are attractive, mischievous young women - worry and fuss over a cauldron without a word being spoken, finally turning it over and propping it up as a trap for whoever should come along. Who comes along, of course, is Macbeth.

Vilnius is a city of just under 600,000. Fewer than 4 million people speak Lithuanian. Working here, without a theater to call his own, Nekrosius has become one of the most heralded directors in Europe, if not the world.

He was once a rebel, and now he's the giant of the theater here. He's been weighted down with decorations. He has astonished audiences at festivals in Paris, in Milan, in Warsaw, in England, in Chicago, in Moscow - especially in his beloved Moscow. He once filled his productions with pain and sincerity, but he says he's moved beyond that now. His friends say the move was a brilliant step that took him to a higher level. His critics say he has been abandoning his roots.

At the age of 47, Nekrosius has achieved distinction and, like Macbeth, finds himself staring into a trap - the trap of his audiences' expectations, of the small world of Vilnius, of success itself. A talent like his, says Marina Zayonts, a Moscow critic and longtime friend, either flourishes or fades. The choice belongs to the artist.

But Nekrosius is a difficult man, and he's not going to make it easy on himself. He demands a sort of perfection, and as he gets older that becomes harder, not easier. He has told friends he would quit the theater in a minute, if he could figure out how to support himself and his family.

In some ways it's the classic dilemma of the artist who's not only at the peak of his powers but coming to some understanding of those powers as well - except that in Nekrosius' case, that dilemma is amplified by the changed world he finds himself in, a personal and political context that has transformed utterly since he first took to the stage.

He grew up in a little village in the lowlands of western Lithuania, and throughout his career his plays have been filled with allusions to the pagan folklore of the Raseiniai region. In his early 20s, he studied at the Lunacharsky Institute of Theater Art in Moscow, where his potential as a director was quickly spotted. These were what he calls "the beautiful days of my youth."

From backwater to capital, from nothing to the center of the Soviet theater world. Here were the living traditions of the Russian stage. To this day, he said in a recent interview, he finds a mediocre production in Moscow more stimulating than the best anywhere else in the world.

Nekrosius, given a post with the Vilnius State Theater, returned in 1977. In those Brezhnev years, the theater was where the boundaries could most successfully be pushed. An actor could give an entirely new meaning to a line with a simple gesture, a raised eyebrow perhaps. What could the authorities do about implications, particularly in a live performance, which leaves no permanent record?

Nekrosius' fans saw politics in everything he did, though it was a personal sort of politics. But even to think about politics in the Brezhnev era was to dwell upon pain, betrayal, the distortion of human relations. In this, Nekrosius excelled.

"He's always been very talented," says Zayonts, "but this talent was that of a man who had been clamped down. His fantasies were virtually those of a sick person. He just splashed out everything that was inside him. He was trying to get rid of his own personal complexes."

In the Soviet era, says the Lithuanian critic Ramune Marcinkeviciute, when words had lost all meaning, Nekrosius sought authenticity in metaphorical imagery. His plays were, above all, visual experiences. Nekrosius subordinated the text to the image. He became director-as-playwright.

In 1984, Nekrosius took the first Lithuanian troupe abroad since before World War II. (They went to Belgrade.) In 1985, American playwright Arthur Miller, in Vilnius for a conference, proclaimed Nekrosius "some kind of genius."

Aleksei Bartoshevich, a theater professor in Moscow who once had Nekrosius as a student in his course on Shakespeare, calls the director "a visionary and a mystic."

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