from the short story by Nikolai Leskov, trans. Charlotte Day
Performed at St Paul's Lutheran Church of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY
December 8th, 2017
Nikolai Leskov’s short story “The Toupee Artist” was inspired by the author’s own childhood memories of serfdom in the province of Oryol, where his family had an estate. The serf theatre troupe of Count Sergei Kamenskii (1771-1834) was one of the most famous of its kind in the Russian Empire. The Count, however, treated his artists much like trained animals. For any failure to memorise lines or blocking, an actor could be flogged backstage by Count Kamenskii and his henchmen, such that the audience would hear.
The story is one of forbidden love between two of the Count’s serfs: hairdresser and makeup artist Arkadii Il’in, and actress Liubov. Their escape attempt and eventual capture. Arkadii’s punishment and pressing into army service. Liubov’s madness. Arkadii’s return as a free man, and sudden death at the hands of a street sweeper. The old serf theatre in ruins. Liubov’s enduring love, and her drunkenness, in order to forget.
As Liubov tells this story beside Arkadii’s grave, we see the shades of the past come to life before us.