Human Most of All: In Moscow, a Theater Stages ‘Gorbachev’

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The whole production takes place in a dressing room with two makeup stations and two mirrors. There is a rack of dresses, and wigs are scattered around the space. This is a work in progress. A large sign on the entrance door reads: “Silence! Performance is ongoing.”

Khamatova and Mironov enter in what could easily be their usual street clothes: a hoodie, jeans, an unpretentious black shirt. Over the course of the performance, they will transform onstage, change their attire and looks as they age.

The two actors start by reading their lines out loud, discussing how to impersonate their characters. Slowly, through discussion, they adopt their roles, most visibly by imitating accents: Mikhail’s southern Cossack-derived pronunciation with elongated vowels and Raisa’s highly pitched chirping of an enthusiastic philosophy major in a country where the only accepted philosophical school was Marxism.

Khamatova and Mironov, who are among the finest drama theater actors of their generation, leave the stage only once, for the intermission in this three-hour performance. Slowly and seamlessly, they read out and play out their lives: The story of Stalin’s purges is followed by the gruesome war with Germany. Then their lives get consumed by their university love affair and, finally, by Gorbachev’s rise to the top through the ranks of party nomenklatura.

The story of Gorbachev at the helm of one of the world’s two superpowers is treated as background noise: “It was just one, six-year-long working day,” Raisa says from the stage. In the end, by the time the actors are already fully immersed in their characters, we only see a 90-year-old Mikhail. (At this point, Mironov is wearing a mask that covers his entire head, with Gorbachev’s port-wine birthmark on full display.) For the last few minutes, Mikhail is by himself, mourning his wife’s death in 1999 from leukemia, remembering her last words: “Do you remember if we returned the white shoes that we borrowed from Nina for our wedding?”

The play’s success, and the insatiable demand for tickets that sell out in a half-hour and cost up to $250, can be attributed to the fact that its creators had something personal at stake.

For Hermanis, Gorbachev, who liberated his native Latvia from the Soviet yoke, was the third person “who changed his life the most after his father and mother,” he said in an interview with a Russian state-run broadcaster.

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