Gogol is for me the main author,” said Russian actor-director Oleg Liptsin. “Probably he’s been that way since third grade, when I was waiting to get a little older for two things: to start chemistry—and study Gogol!”
Liptsin is appearing in the innovative solo adaptation of Nicolai Gogol’s The Nose, complete with interactive video, Thursday through Saturday at the Berkeley City Club.
Liptsin, who began developing his piece last winter at Noh Space in San Francisco, has taken it around the world over the past year, with performances in Taiwan, Eastern Europe and the Avignon Theatre Festival in France, celebrating Gogol’s 200th anniversary, before bringing it back to Berkeley, where he has performed Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days and A Propos of the Wet Snow (after Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground) over the last few years. Like A Propos, it features Kevin Quennesson’s interactive video technology, which allows Liptsin to be live onstage, telling the story, “involved in the scene, while duplicating me, creating a second presence like a double ... just like the life we’re living now, image becoming more important, another alter ego.”
The Nose, from Gogol’s satiric tall tale of a petty bureaucrat who comes to the big city seeking advancement only to be abandoned by his social-climbing nose, concentrates on the narrative, delivered by Liptsin, amplified by images “captured from the Internet, creating a language of its clichés, just as we now explain things through images, or a link to YouTube, instead of with words.”
Liptsin spoke of how his unique treatment brings out the essence of the story: “Narrative’s an ancient tradition; it exists in all cultures. Gogol takes it to a new level. The narrator comes onstage, presents himself as—and is taken as—real, but there’s no way he’s not another character, a fictional thing himself, creating a marvelous reality, a play-within-a-play. It’s an enormous freedom, to tell a tragic story with smiles and laughter, or vice versa ... whereas only acting inside the story, you couldn’t go so far.”
He expanded on Gogol’s theme: “He was fascinated with emptiness. Behind the façade of appearances, of St. Petersburg, of people and the mechanisms they’re using, there is zero, which scares and fascinates him. And the narrator himself is another big illusion. Like Gogol, who was maybe the greatest character in his own fiction, the way he lived and died, never being able to overcome the simplest problems in his own life.”
This sense of a fantastic fictionality is related, too, to Liptsin’s theatrical background. Born in Kiev, he studied theater with Mikhail Butkevich at the State Institute of Theatre Art (GITIS)—now the Russian Academy of Theatre Arts—founded by V. S. Meyerhold in Moscow. “I studied to be a director; you must take acting, too.” In 1987, he became one of the first actors in the renowned (and controversial) director Anatoly Vasiliev’s Perestroika era company, touring in Demons (from Dostoyevsky)—and for three years in Vasiliev’s version of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, “touring everywhere, Avignon, London, all the big theater festivals, New York, Mexico ... We met [director Jerzy] Grotowski at Pontadera; Peter Brook came to see us in Moscow.
Liptsin finished his master’s at the same time, established the first theater group in Ukraine that wasn’t part of the state system in 1988, and had a residency at Berlin’s famous Shaubuhne in ’91. After taking first prize in Ukraine for directing an adaptation of James Joyce’s Ulysses in 1994, he took up residence in the Bay Area, where his family lives, staging, among other works, Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard in San Francisco in 1999.
Liptsin has been involved with the publication of his late teacher’s book on theater. Volume one of Butkevich’s Towards a Fictional Theater came out in 2003; volume two is almost ready. Liptsin explained Butkevich’s thesis, concepts of which he employs in The Nose: “To him, theater itself is a reality. In the past, it’s always been based on the existing morality and views and judgments on life. Even Bertolt Brecht, trying to provoke through challenging morality and political ideas, did that from the position of other ideas he insisted on. My teacher’s idea was that, instead of expressing what we already know, theater should be used for our expressing new ideas, as a space for intense living, without prejudgment. Hamlet might be right or wrong; even Claudius or Gertrude could be right. A third dimension is created.”
Liptsin cited Alexander Tairov, Evgeny Vahktengov and Michael Chekhov as predecessors to the Fictional Theater.
Liptsin concluded with a few words about technology and Gogol’s fantastic satire. “When people talk about technology, it’s either as total belief or total criticism. There’s neither social criticism, moralizing nor total belief in The Nose. Believing in something so much, it becomes like a religion. That’s when I think artists—and everybody—need to play with it, like kids. And Gogol’s characters are strange, weird, wrong. But he loved them. After four or five productions over the years, based on Gogol, I realize his fiction is now alive. We are his characters. We already live in his reality.”
Oleg Liptsin’s adaptation of Nicolai Gogol’s story. 8 p. m. Thursday–Saturday, Jan. 14-16, at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave. (Followed by two weekends at Shelton Studios, Pier 26, San Francisco). $15–$20. (415) 944-1555. brownpapertickets.com.