The Ital­ian Who Came Into the Cold

Af­ter fail­ing to launch an act­ing ca­reer in Italy, Alessan­dra Gi­un­tini now stages cos­mopoli­tan the­ater in pro­vin­cial Rus­sia

The Moscow Times - - LIVING HERE - By Emily Erken art­sre­porter@ime­

Rus­sians of­ten claim that Moscow and St. Peters­burg are in­tel­lec­tual bub­bles, but the­ater di­rec­tor Alessan­dra Gi­un­tini’s ca­reer tes­ti­fies to the fer­tile art scene in the coun­try’s re­gions.

The young Ital­ian di­rec­tor has staged plays in a num­ber of pro­vin­cial cities in Euro­pean Rus­sia and fur­ther afield in Siberia, in­clud­ing Perm, Kras­no­yarsk, Ke­merovo, No­vokuznetsk, and Omsk.

Ear­lier this month, the Kur­gan Drama The­ater pre­sented Gi­un­tini’s lat­est work, “The Shrew,” at the Mey­er­hold Cen­ter as part of the Golden Mask Fes­ti­val’s “Plus” series, which brings out-of-com­pe­ti­tion stage pro­duc­tions to Moscow from Fe­bru­ary to April.

Ten years ago, Gi­un­tini left her Tus­can home­town of Pis­toia for St. Peters­burg in a last-ditch at­tempt at forg­ing an act­ing ca­reer. Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from the Rus­sian State In­sti­tute of Per­form­ing Arts (and mas­ter­ing Rus­sian), the budding di­rec­tor fi­nally caught a break in Siberia.

Ac­cord­ing to the critic and di­rec­tor Oleg Loyevsky, Gi­un­tini’s south­ern cheer­ful­ness gives her an edge in Rus­sia.

“Alessan­dra is col­or­ful, en­er­getic, and from a dif­fer­ent cul­ture. Her Ital­ian op­ti­mism is great: It pro­vides re­lief from the dark Rus­sian men­tal­ity where every­one wants to die,” he told The Moscow Times.

Gi­un­tini’s pop­u­lar­ity in frosty Siberia keeps her on the road for most of the year.

The Soviet strat­egy of us­ing art to “en­gi­neer the soul” of a new homo-Sovi­eti­cus left a net­work of theaters in every dis­tant town. In these grand Em­pire-style build­ings, state-sup­ported troupes stage the clas­sics, but they also host the­ater lab­o­ra­to­ries to sam­ple new di­rec­to­rial tal­ent.

Vera Senk­ina, one of the cu­ra­tors of the “Mask Plus” series, says that Siberian the­ater is de­ter­mined to evolve and is any­thing but back­ward. “Many theaters are ori­ent­ing them­selves to­ward the cap­i­tals, fol­low­ing new trends, and mak­ing sure to in­vite in­ter­est­ing di­rec­tors,” she told The Moscow Times.

In a typ­i­cal lab­o­ra­tory, young di­rec­tors pro­duce short sketches with ac­tors from the lo­cal troupe in about four days. It’s a nerve-wrack­ing process, but for Gi­un­tini, al­most every lab­o­ra­tory re­sults in an in­vi­ta­tion to stage a full-length play at the the­ater.

Fish out of water

As an Ital­ian in Siberia, the di­rec­tor is al­ways a bit ex­otic. In­deed, Gi­un­tini cuts an un­usual pic­ture—the pe­tite brunette has a nose ring and wears her buoy­ant curls lopped off at the ears.

Un­for­tu­nately, her un­usual ap­pear­ance and ac­cent have at­tracted un­wanted at­ten­tion. She has been de­tained a num­ber of times af­ter po­lice took her for “an im­mi­grant from the Near East,” Gi­un­tini told the Tagabout news­pa­per in an in­ter­view. (Her mother is Ge­or­gian.) “But when they re­al­ized I was Ital­ian, ev­ery­thing im­me­di­ately changed: I was their best friend, a fa­vored guest.”

At other times, un­fa­mil­iar­ity with the rules or an un­will­ing­ness to fol­low them has also re­sulted in prob­lems. She was put straight on the first plane back to Kras­no­yarsk af­ter land­ing in the Arc­tic city of No­rilsk, which can only be vis­ited by for­eign­ers with spe­cial per­mis­sion. In St. Peters­burg, a mi­gra­tion of­fi­cer threat­ened to de­port her for turn­ing in res­i­dency pa­per­work one hour too late. Af­ter the ac­tress staged an Ital­ian-style melt­down, the of­fi­cers as­suaged her tears—by send­ing her to court in­stead.

Gi­un­tini’s trans­for­ma­tion on Rus­sian soil has come with some dif­fi­culty. She de­scribes her­self as hav­ing been “ab­so­lutely wild” be­fore she en­tered the The­ater Academy. “No one could con­trol me… now, I am thought­ful, se­ri­ous, al­though for Rus­sians, I am still cheer­ful,” she says.

Mas­ter­ing the so­cial in­tri­ca­cies of the lan­guage also proved chal­leng­ing. Al­though Gi­un­tini now speaks nearper­fect Rus­sian, Loyevsky re­counts how, as an ac­tress fresh out of the the­ater academy, she filled a for­mal toast to the gov­er­nor of the Len­ingrad re­gion with Rus­sian ob­scen­i­ties. Ap­par­ently, she had yet to ap­pre­ci­ate the fine dis­tinc­tion be­tween lan­guage for the dor­mi­tory and for a for­mal cer­e­mony. In Shake­speare’s

Petruc­cio psy­cho­log­i­cally ha­rasses his un­will­ing bride un­til she be­comes an obe­di­ent wife. Gi­un­tini says her trans­for­ma­tion is also cog­ni­tive, that she thinks “not in words, but in emo­tions.” This aligns her with a cur­rent dra­matur­gi­cal ap­proach to emo­tion that rips away Soviet the­ater’s “win­dow into the past.” Fren­zied ac­tors in sur­real cos­tumes aban­don filmic real­ism, de­pict­ing not so much char­ac­ters as in­ter­per­sonal re­la­tion­ships through dance, song and ab­sur­dist com­edy. Emo­tional en­ergy re­mains cen­tral as re­al­ist por­traits dis­ap­pear.

This style works best when the au­di­ence is al­ready familiar with the orig­i­nal story, as it was for Gi­un­tini’s “The Shrew” (“Strop­ti­vaya”), an adap­ta­tion of Shake­speare’s “The Tam­ing of the Shrew.”

In “The Shrew,” Gi­un­tini con­veys her fem­i­nist mes­sage with­out slo­ga­neer­ing or pro­fan­ity. Her Ka­te­rina is a so­cial mis­fit, a som­nam­bu­list sur­rounded by a chirpy en­sem­ble in white and lurid pink, cheer­fully trip­ping around the stage. Be­cause she is fe­male, the odd­ball must marry, but only the beastly Petruc­cio will have her. Baroque poly­phonic mu­sic un­der­scores Gi­un­tini’s al­lu­sions to 17th-cen­tury com­me­dia dell’arte—Ka­te­rina’s shal­low sis­ter is the pretty Columbine. Her groom, Petruc­cio, ap­pears at their wed­ding in Pier­rot the clown’s col­lar and face paint. Pi­tiable Petruc­cio leads Ka­te­rina, bal­anc­ing on pointe shoes, into mar­riage.

Gi­un­tini’s “rosy so­cial tragi-com­edy,” as she pitched it to the Kur­gan Drama The­ater, is chock-full of fem­i­nism. The di­rec­tor takes a page from Pina Bausch’s “Café Muller” by hav­ing Ka­te­rina re­peat­edly hurl her body into Petruc­cio’s arms, then crash to the stage with a thud.

Whereas Bausch’s work in­sists that in every het­ero­sex­ual re­la­tion­ship men op­press women, Gi­un­tini points her cri­tique at so­ci­ety in form­ing the con­cepts of fem­i­nin­ity and nor­malcy, women in­cluded. Near the end of the play, a video pro­jec­tor shows clips of mid­dle-aged Rus­sian women defin­ing “what a woman is.”

The doc­u­men­tary the­ater fi­nale brings the sur­re­al­ism of “The Shrew” into stark re­al­ity. As she told The Moscow Times, “I just want the au­di­ence to think, and if they will be an­gry, that would also be good.”

The ben­e­fits of cen­sor­ship

De­spite Gi­un­tini’s pro­gres­sive out­look and mul­ti­ple run-ins with the po­lice, the di­rec­tor em­braces the lim­i­ta­tions of Rus­sian life.

“In some sense, it’s good that there is cen­sor­ship in Rus­sia,” Gi­un­tini told the Su­perOmsk news­pa­per. “The brain starts work­ing, you have to push your imag­i­na­tion fur­ther to over­come ob­sta­cles and ex­press your thoughts.”

Gi­un­tini has yet to stage a full-length play in St. Peters­burg or Moscow, al­though she hints that her de­but may not be far away. But un­til then, the 33-year-old di­rec­tor re­mains op­ti­mistic, and praises the the­ater world of her adopted home­land for its abil­ity to per­se­vere.

“In the long run, ev­ery­thing gets done. There will be com­pli­ca­tions, some­thing [wrong] with the bud­get, an­other thing ap­pears, but in the end, some­thing will hap­pen.”

← Irina Khramova as Ka­te­rina in Gi­un­tini’s The Shrew, per­form­ing on March 2 at the Mey­er­hold Cen­ter.

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