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‘Bye, Dad’ Alexander Kudryashov’s play about his father (a veteran of the Second Chechen War) is also a portrait of Russian masculinity

Source: Meduza
Photo courtesy of Alexander Kudryashov

Moscow’s Alexander Kudryashov Theater Company is an independent troupe staging low-cost plays for intimate audiences. Inside the company, Alexander Kudryashov plays the “roles” of playwright, director, and actor. His new play, “Bye, Dad,” tells the story of his late father, a veteran of the Second Chechen War. And it’s a rare example of theater that feels appropriate in wartime. It’s also a remarkably candid work, even though the author himself avoids speaking of his feelings. Theater critic Anton Khitrov shares his thoughts about the play.

Since the start of the war against Ukraine, many in Russia’s theater world have signed petitions protesting against the invasion. Some, like Elena Kovalskaya, director of the Meyerhold Center, or Mindaugas Karbauskis, artistic director of the Mayakovsky Theater, have severed ties with state-funded venues. Others, like directors Zhenya Berkovich and Yury Shekhvatov, have taken to the streets with solo protests and ended up in detention centers. The state’s arts-and-culture bureaucrats are naturally inclined to protect themselves — and now insist that theaters in their control show their loyalty to the regime in ways that weren’t required in peacetime. Across Russia’s regions, theaters are being strongly advised to follow the example of Vladimir Mashkov, director of the Tabakerka theater, who embellished his venue with the letter “Z.” In Moscow, plays written by Mikhail Durnenkov and Ivan Vyrypayev are being quietly banned: both playwrights have spoken out against the war.

How artists can continue their work inside a state that has assumed control of the one subject that presently merits their attention and comment is an open question. It’s important to remember that, in their own way, independent troupes are highly vulnerable, even if less so than state-funded companies. If ethical theater does not become wholly extinct in Russia in the near future, it will likely survive by following the two rules embraced by the director Alexander Kudryashov. The first rule is to minimize costs: under the conditions of military censorship, good old-fashioned grant funding cannot be relied on. The second is to minimize the number of people involved in production. This isn’t just to economize: a large team forces its leader to be cautious.

When limited by such rules, an artist will inevitably move towards minimalist conventions. Bye, Dad works very much in that way. The Kudryashov Theater Company stages it in the private venues of Kvarteatr (“apart-theatre”) — that is, in actual Moscow apartments. The show’s address is sent to audience members together with their tickets. There is no stage as such, and the public — about thirty guests per evening — sit at a table with tea and biscuits. One seat is reserved for the director, who is also the playwright and narrator.

The audience of “Bye, Dad” at a Kvarteatr (“apart-theater”) venue
Photo courtesy of Alexander Kudryashov

Kudryashov is 31 years old, and his theater is two-and-a-half. He has previously collaborated with Theater.doc, as well as Yeltsin Center and Voznesensky Center. His past projects include Life Lessons, a show based on pseudo-philosophical quotations from blogs and social media groups for young men, and Mumblecore, in which the director and his audience enacted famous Hollywood plots. The fictive coauthor of Bye, Dad — a certain “playwright Vasya Sharapov” — is, in reality, a nom-de-plume of Kudryashov’s own. Sharapov is credited, for example, with a play called Life — consisting of only one word.

Kudryashov practices what he calls “anti-theater,” and Bye, Dad very much conforms to this definition. The narrator has no text written in advance — only an outline, which he peeks at every now and again, quite openly. Kudryashov’s manner is freer than an actor’s: he seems closer to a friendly teacher, or a speaker at an informal meeting. Most viewers have to turn just slightly to see the artist: this minimal discomfort marks quite a difference compared to the familiar experience of theater as a stage conveniently set up right before the viewer. As traditional theater has ceased to be a space of freedom that it was (or perhaps just seemed to be) before February 24, Kudryashov’s distancing from it is meaningful.

“What brings me here today?” With this question, the narrator opens the play, and answers it himself, by placing several bills on the table — 2,100 rubles in total (about $32). This was his father’s monthly pension as a veteran of the Second Chechen War. Just after the millennium, Anatoly Kudryashov signed a military contract that sent him to Chechnya and Abkhazia. He would try to learn other professions, too — working as everything from a restaurant musician to a taxi dispatcher — but never achieved any real success. His family life didn’t turn out any better. Soon after the birth of Alexander’s younger brother, their parents divorced. Afterwards, the children would only see their father on weekends. From a fairly young age and until the very end, he suffered from alcohol dependence.

Photos courtesy of Alexander Kudryashov
Photos courtesy of Alexander Kudryashov

Kudryashov says little about his father’s service in the military. Bye, Dad is concerned not with the war itself, but with the ordinary person who voluntarily takes up arms. The life story of Anatoly Kudryashov does not resemble the heroic narrative of a defender of the fatherland, so familiar to Russian people thanks to the state propaganda. We do not know what Kudryashov Sr. believed in or what might have stood behind his decision, apart from a desire to become close friends with his fellow contract soldiers. His son is deliberately silent about all this. What we do know is the reward he ultimately reaped: a monthly pension of 2,100 rubles, paid by a country that continues to hush up the Chechen topic to this day. The war path of Anatoly Kudryashov is a mix of confused motives and dubious results.

It might seem strange that the dramatist evades all the questions that should be central to a biography: the protagonist’s aspirations, his values, or even what feelings he elicits from the narrator. From the tone of voice, and choice of words and details, it’s easy to detect Kudryashov-the-son’s resentment of his father. (The story of burning his father’s letters, for example.) But this resentment is concealed behind a mask of ironic indifference.

This is definitely a deliberate artistic decision. Theater, after all, inclines towards the obvious alternative: to tell all, and to reveal all those hard feelings. Kudryashov does something else: but why? Perhaps he “acts” as he would act in everyday life. Perhaps, this is what bonds him with his father, this caginess, this fear of vulnerability. Perhaps, he knows so little about his father because his father shared so little about what really mattered to him, in the same way that his son now withholds what he really knows from his audience.

If these conjectures are true, then Bye, Dad is nothing less than a faithful and candid portrayal of Russian masculinity, threatened as it is by any real or imagined weakness of its own, anything that might come across as vulnerability. In private life, the price of this social norm is “merely” the estrangement of fathers and sons. On the scale of a whole country this refusal to be vulnerable is pregnant with war.

Text by Anton Khitrov

Translation by Anna Razumnaya

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