Rezo Gabriadze's "Battle of Stalingrad" has finished a successful run at Lincoln Center's Out of Doors Festival in New York. Gabriadze, who is the author of such screen plays as "Mimino" and "Don't Grieve," is scheduled to reopen his puppet theater and cafe in Tbilisi this fall. (Photo: Stephanie Berger.)
In July 2002, the works of Georgian director and writer Rezo Gabriadze made their New York debut at the Lincoln Center Festival, with rotating performances of The Battle of Stalingrad and Autumn of My Springtime, marionette works that sold out and earned rave reviews, becoming a kind of stealth sensation.
The Lincoln Center Festival this summer welcomed back The Battle of Stalingrad: A Requiem, marking a third New York appearance for Gabriadze. (His Forbidden Christmas, or The Doctor and the Patient played in 2004, with Mikhail Baryshnikov in the lead).
Stalingrad is an intimately scaled marionette work that spans the years 1937-43 and is set in Moscow, Kiev, Berlin and Stalingrad. Gabriadze’s forte is the perfect visual metaphor, with doll-sized figures and tiny objects used to create an emotionally resonant tableau, enhanced by the sensitive work of five performers. The Russian voices that accompanied the puppetry were recorded with naturalistic emotion, and woven together with a soundtrack of Shostakovich, Offenbach, and folk music.
The work presented both the authors of war and its victims: Stalin, spies, a German general, decadent Weimar-era cafe-crawlers; a philosopher, a rabbi, a jilted Ukrainian boy who grows into a gunner; a mother ant seeking a few grains of sugar to feed her starving daughter, and a pair of equine lovers who reconnect with one another on the banks of the Volga, doomed to recall the past as they are propelled toward death. Juxtaposed against these fragile figures were the large hands and the soulful faces of the puppeteers.
Gabriadze was originally scheduled to present an all-new work, Ermon and Ramona, at the Lincoln Center Festival, but the work was still under development, and its debut had to be postponed. Instead, his signature work returned for an encore engagement. The Battle of Stalingrad played at the Clark Studio Theatre at John Jay College from July 20-25.
In the mid-1990s, Gabriadze was living in St. Petersburg, in temporary exile from the unrest in Georgia, when he conceptualized The Battle of Stalingrad, which he originally called Song of the Volga. In his director’s note, he explained: “gradually, there in my mind, the theme of Stalingrad started to take form. The distant images of a forgotten childhood, widows in black, the crippled people and invalids that I saw throughout my native Kutaisi, the tears and suffering of my grandmother. All these images tormented me until I created this play, a requiem.”
Gabriadze is quick to mention that American literature and film exerted significant influence in his development as an artist and screenwriter, a man who would go on to write some classic works of post-war Soviet-Georgian cinema, including Mimino, Don’t Grieve and Extraordinary Exhibition. He expressed admiration for Mark Twain, and said his generation became enthralled with the Hollywood films that made their way over to Russia after World War II.
When asked if art can heal the grief of war, Gabriadze answered that that was a question for philosophers to debate. He had no pat answer.
Looking out over the New York skyline, Gabriadze’s thoughts drifted back to Tbilisi. The puppet theater there is undergoing renovations and is scheduled to reopen in late October. Founded in 1981, the theater was designed to serve as a personal laboratory, where he could develop stories and techniques freely, without the pressure of official censorship.
As Gabriadze tells it, many Tbilisi residents have missed the little theater, as well as an adjoining café called Sans Souci, since they closed for repairs. The café is also scheduled to reopen under a new roof and new name in late October. Since the heyday of the Georgian modernist period (1917-21), cafes have figured prominently in Tbilisi’s cultural life, helping the city develop a reputation as the “Paris of the Caucasus.” Gabriadze is known as one of Tbilisi’s finest raconteurs, and Sans Souci had served as a venue for kindred spirits to congregate before it closed for repairs.
Situated next door to the puppet theater, in a historic Tbilisi building decorated with his own mosaics, the cafe drew many locals and tourists alike. On more than one occasion, Gabriadze explained to a visiting journalist: “The Mediterranean world begins in Greece and it ends here, in my café.”
Editor's note: Pamela Renner is a cultural journalist who was a 2007-2008 Fulbright Scholar in arts reporting in Tbilisi.