An engaging man, neither young nor old, tries to convince us of mankind’s inability to perform the good, the rational, the self-interested. He takes us through a veritable sideshow hall of mirrors, acting out a reunion with his old school friends who spout banalities. He challenges them, only to be humiliated.
Then, when all go to a brothel, he moralizes sternly to a young prostitute. But his plans backfire: his friends don’t take him seriously, yet the prostitute takes him too seriously, looking up to him as her savior—a role he’s not ready to fill.
This is a thumbnail account of Oleg Liptsin’s remarkable production and performance of Apropos of the Wet Snow. Based on Dostoyevsky’s Notes From the Underground, the show is playing Thursday through Saturday for two weeks at the Metal Shop Theater, after a run of several weeks near Union Square in San Francisco.
But no brief description—or any description, really—can do justice to the extraordinary manner in which Liptsin stages and performs this classic tale.
He makes every second on the stage count, whether in his intriguing initial address to the audience or alone in a rapturous moment, wreathed with the bright image of snowflakes falling as he trails his umbrella behind him. He both narrates and acts out the cartoonish characters carousing and arguing at the reunion, as well as the protagonist engaging in the intimate yet wry dialogues with Liza, the prostitute.
He’s joined by a fine young Taiwanese actress, Ai-Cheng Ho, a graduate of the Sorbonne and the Jacques Lecoq Theatre School in Paris, on her first visit to the states. She’s the perfect foil for Liptsin’s physical dynamism, often saying everything with her eyes or the slightest gesture, even as Liptsin will express his characters in a flash perfectly with body language or quick, mask-like facial expression.
Here the third creative component of the show comes into its own, Kevin Quennesson’s prodigious interactive video artistry, which begins with images that expand on the narrator’s address to the audience, then captures in graceful arabesques the plastic image of Liptsin performing in the space onstage, a swirl of attitudes and expressions captured in a fresco of light.
Those who saw Liptsin’s unusual adaptation of Beckett’s Happy Days at the Berkeley City Club, where he played Beckett’s heroine Winnie, will welcome a chance to see a brilliant actor and director playing his changes over the octaves of a scale with greater range, yet still set as intimate, captivating chamber theater.
Liptsin is a protege of Anatoly Vasiliev, one of the great postwar figures in Russian theater. There’s been a great deal of talk in recent years about Russian theater and its legacy, from the great days of Stanislavsky’s realism and Meyerhold’s stylizations—but it’s usually talk or the work of students of academic approaches to the original techniques. Liptsin’s art comes from many years of staging exciting performances like Apropos of the Wet Snow around the world. It’s the sort of show usually seen only at international theater festivals, if you’re lucky.
It touches on the deepest origins of drama, mime, vaudeville and commedia dell’arte in popular entertainment, and of that thing Francis Fergusson called “the Histrionic Impulse,” when (as Roland Barthes fleshed it out), one person changes his appearance and turns to face his community as if beyond the pale, telling or showing them the stories of their origins and of the quality of their soul.
Liptsin and Ho do all this as they act out Dostoyevsky’s tale of the individualist caught in the web of his own thoughts and actions. I’m tempted to say it’s the most brilliantly original, most completely theatrical show I’ve seen in seven years of reviewing. I’m tempted to say you should go if you go to nothing else during this season that’s just opened—or next. But that’s just the measure of my own enthusiasm. I hope you do see it, and that we see Oleg Liptsin & Co. more often in the very near future.
APROPOS OF THE WET SNOW
8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through Nov. 3 at Metal Shop Theater, off Telegraph Avenue on Regent Street, behind Willard School. $30; $20 for senior and students. www.brownpapertickets.com or (415) 440-6163. For more information, see www.olegliptsin.