In ‘Big Trip,’ an Exiled Russian Director Asks: What Makes Us Human?

The Russian theatermaker Dmitry Krymov’s “Big Trip,” two shows in repertory through mid-October at La MaMa, in Manhattan, is in love with the very essence of theater: how we tell stories, how we make art, how we live.

The productions have no sets to speak of. The costumes and props look as if they have been sourced from thrift shops and Home Depot — one piece makes extensive use of cardboard. Yet we are far from the usual Off Off Broadway seen at incubators like the Brick. The framework here — Pushkin, Hemingway and O’Neill — is drawn from high art, or at least classics some might deem musty. Flares of whimsy, as when the actors don red clown noses, might feel rather European to locals more accustomed to irony. It is safe to say there is nothing else like this on New York stages right now.

This is all very much of a piece for Krymov, but also new territory for him.

Back in Moscow, this acclaimed writer, director and visual artist had access to fairly generous budgets, presented work at fancy institutions and taught his craft to avid students. He earned accolades and traveled the world, including to our shores to present “Opus No. 7” at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn (2013), “The Square Root of Three Sisters” at Yale University (2016) and “The Cherry Orchard” at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia. After that last production’s run ended in spring 2022, Krymov refused to return home because Russia had attacked Ukraine.

Now living in New York, he runs Krymov Lab NYC, an iteration of his Moscow workshop, and collaborates with an English-speaking ensemble. “Big Trip,” their first official outing, consists of the distinct pieces “Pushkin ‘Eugene Onegin’ in Our Own Words,” a retooling of one of his Moscow productions; and “Three Love Stories Near the Railroad,” based on two of Hemingway’s short stories, “Hills Like White Elephants” and “A Canary for One,” and scenes from Eugene O’Neill’s “Desire Under the Elms.”

Krymov does not so much stage classic works as filter them through prisms like memory, notions of cultural heritage and identity, and the very process of theatermaking. (It’s mind-boggling that, according to Tatyana Khaikin, a lead producer of Krymov Lab NYC, none of the city’s established companies have invited him to do a show.)

In “Onegin,” the stronger of the two works, Russian immigrants (Jeremy Radin, Jackson Scott, Elizabeth Stahlmann and Anya Zicer) guide the audience through a retelling of Pushkin’s 19th-century masterpiece about high-society youths facing the demands of love.

Kwesiu Jones, left, and Tim Eliot in “Three Love Stories Near the Railroad,” in a segment that adapts Eugene O’Neill’s “Desire Under the Elms.”Credit…Steven Pisano

They begin by explaining the basics of theater then re-enact scenes from “Eugene Onegin” while essentially annotating the text (throughout both shows, Krymov repeatedly breaks the fourth wall to stress the porosity of the line between life and theater). The central character is a dandy afflicted with spleen, which “is like having American blues,” we are told. “But even worse — it’s having the Russian blues.” (Reflecting on such differences is a Krymov forte: His astonishing memory play “Everyone Is Here,” which is on the streaming platform Stage Russia, intersperses scenes from “Our Town” with the impact a touring American production had on him in the 1970s.)

The issue of watching an exiled Russian director’s work while his country is waging war against Ukraine is actually raised in “Onegin,” which is interrupted by a harangue directed at the cast: “You can’t hide behind your beautiful Russian ‘culture’ anymore. Your culture means destruction and death, and all of your Pushkins, your Dostoevskys and Chekhovs cannot save you.” The show resumes, but the trouble among theatergoers feels real, and so are the questionsthat have been raised. Should Thomas Mann not have been able to publish in America after he fled Nazi Germany, for example?

The outburst is also representative of the constant interrogation of the source material, all the while reaching deep into its core and extracting the marrow — what makes us human.

The trickiest of the three segments in “Three Love Stories Near the Railroad” is O’Neill’s “Desire Under the Elms,” which will be cryptic for those unfamiliar with the play’s premise and characters. Yet the action is magnetic because of the director’s ability to create absorbing theater in an elemental way, often through deceivingly simple devices. The father and son Ephraim and Eben (Kwesiu Jones and Tim Eliot), using stilts, tower over Abbie (Shelby Flannery), the woman who has upended their lives. It’s a stark representation of power and its often illusory appearance that peaks in a stunning visualization (that I won’t spoil) of Abbie and Eben’s tortured relationship.

In the same show’s “A Canary for One,” the unrolling of a painted sheet suggests passing scenery seen from a train. It’s easy to get lost in the action, despite the fourth-wall breaking. Introducing “Desire,” Radin wondered where the train was. A whistle blew. “It’s very far away, and behind you,” he told us. I knew the train could not possibly be there, and yet I turned around and looked. I’d bought it all.

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