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‘The Dragon’: Subversive Comedic Allegory Takes Center Stage

Theatre at Davidson opens its 2017-18 season with a mainstage production of “The Dragon,” Oct. 20-21 and Oct. 27-29 in the Duke Family Performance Hall, Knobloch Campus Center. Mild violence and adult themes; recommended for ages 13 and up. Get tickets.
Play by Evgeny Shvarts • Translated by Laurence Senelick • Directed by Mark Sutch • Scenic design by Anita J. Tripathi.

Scene from the DragonA town ruled by a dragon has a chance for freedom thanks to a visit from Sir Lancelot. Sounds simple enough, but life rarely is. In an inventive telling of the tale "The Dragon," penned by Russian playwright Evgeny Shvarts, director Mark Sutch excavates artistic truth from Soviet history.

The Theatre Department's fall mainstage production of "The Dragon" is a centerpiece of the college's year-long, interdisciplinary commemoration "The Russian Revolution 1917/2017." In the spirit of the year's wide-ranging programs, the production explores through humor and satire the Revolution's century of broad, global ripple effects.

A supernatural fairy tale written ostensibly for children in Stalinist Russia, "The Dragon" is a comedic allegory that calls to mind George Santayana's famous quote, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Does the dragon represent Stalin? Hitler? Kim Jong-un? Sutch pushes the play beyond the realm of literal allegory, into a more universal observation of political repression and artistic expression.

"It is tempting to think that the conditions that existed under Stalin are historical conditions that we've learned from and moved on," he said. "But there are dozens of countries around the world where that kind of repression is the norm: China, Somalia, Venezuela, Russia, Syria, North Korea... In that context, someone's right to put on a play seems a little thing, but art is a way of speaking truth to power, and that is a larger and more fundamental idea."

Opening and Closing Night

Sutch and company reimagine "The Dragon" as a play-within-a-play at the time of its mid-century Russian premiére. First, they must become Russian actors on opening (and closing) night in 1944, complete with original dialogue and music from their own workshop rehearsals. From there they become the characters in Shvarts's play.

"The play is funny and light, disturbing and fantastical," said Sutch, "and our framing device plays against that."

For this multi-layered approach, cast and crew drew on the interdisciplinary programming of the campus-wide Russian Revolution 1917/2017 initiative, which includes academic courses, art exhibits, lectures, book and film discussions, dance, music and food. Topics focus on a century of the revolution's ripple effects: Communist and Cold War propaganda, Cuba, Malcolm X, anti-colonial revolutions around the world, atomic science, genetics, artificial intelligence and even science denial in the age of alternative facts.

Scene from the DragonThe translator of the play, Laurence Senelick, visited campus to give a public lecture earlier in the semester.

"When artists and politicians disagree, politicians usually win," said Senelick, the Fletcher Professor of Drama and Oratory at Tufts University. 

But artists can get history's last word, he noted, adding, "The more foreign languages you know, the harder it is for people to lie to you!"

Lies, unexplained disappearances, even suicide were a reality for artists in Stalinist Russia, when the only acceptable art form was socialist realism that glorified the proletariat. "The Dragon" brings those dark forces to bear in a reimagining that sees the play-within-a-play's cast dwindle from 12 to five over the course of the performance.

The Department of Cultural Affairs under Stalin was no laughing matter. The arts were heavily censored, and artists, intellectuals, and other potential rabble-rousers routinely disappeared. Poet Vladimir Mayakovsky's work was met with scorn by the Soviet state of the 1920s, and by extension by the literary establishment. He committed suicide. Theatre director, actor and producer Vsevolod Meyerhold was arrested, tortured and executed in 1940, the same year Shvarts wrote "The Dragon."

Yet even within this darker framing device, Shvarts's play retains its strong comedic roots.

"The play itself is quite funny," said Zoe Harrison '21. "I'm curious to see whether the audience will come away thinking it's a comedy."

Harrison plays Russian actress Sonya playing damsel in distress Elsa for most of the play, until something happens and then she doesn't. Get your tickets and find out why.

John Syme