Mark Weil, a prominent theater director in Uzbekistan, was stabbed to death in the Uzbek capital.
Weil, who founded the Ilkhom theater more than 30 years ago, was attacked in front of his apartment building in Tashkent late Thursday night, spokeswoman Oksana Khrupun said. She said he died on the operating table at a local hospital.
Actors at the theater, reached by telephone, said Weil was taken to the hospital by neighbors, who described seeing two young men in baseball caps waiting for the director in front of his building.
Weil was not robbed, and he said before the operation that he did not know his assailants, according to the actors, who had rushed to the hospital. They refused to speculate on the motives for his killing.
"To the last minute, he kept talking about tomorrow's premiere," said musical director Artyom Kim.
Police were investigating, but refused to say whether they had identified any suspects, Khrupun said. Calls to the police were not answered.
Ilkhom, which Weil founded in 1976, was the first independent theater in the Soviet Union. Long before perestroika was introduced in the late 1980s, Ilkhom gained popularity for staging uncensored productions that combined elements of Uzbek folk theater, Italian commedia dell'arte, absurdist plays and pantomime.
"Our credo is not to repeat ourselves, and each new project obliterates everything we've done before," Weil told The Associated Press in 2006.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Weil and his theater began participating in theater festivals throughout the world, and Weil directed productions in Moscow and Seattle, where he has relatives.
Weil first came to Seattle in 1988 after a group of Seattle theater artists visited Tashkent for a two-week artistic collaboration. A few years later, Weil encouraged his daughter to study in the United States, and she moved to Seattle and entered the University of Washington in 1995. Since then, his youngest daughter and wife moved to Seattle, and Weil had divided his time between there and Tashkent.
Sarah Nash Gates, executive director of the School of Drama at the University of Washington in Seattle, who collaborated with Weil and Ilkhom, fought to keep her composure in a telephone interview as she recalled how he downplayed U.S. State Department warnings of lawlessness in Uzbekistan while welcoming Washington students to collaborative visits with Ilkhom.
"He always felt very comfortable there," Gates said. "He always said the theater never had any enemies."
Training as well as directing his company's actors, many of whom went on to teach stagecraft themselves, "he had a gift for a director of really getting to the core of the material," Gates said, "and then he could lead actors to demonstrate that."
Ilkhom has stood out as an oasis in the devastated landscape of Uzbek theater life, which has been hit by economic hardships, an unending brain drain and a lust for productions appealing to the masses.
Some of Ilkhom's productions have discussed themes of homosexual love, a taboo topic in Uzbekistan, a predominantly Muslim country in Central Asia where gays still face ostracism and persecution. Homosexuality is punishable by up to two years in jail.
"A Vigil with a Pomegranate," which premiered at Ilkhom in 2006, was devoted to the life of Alexander Nikolayev, a Russian artist who moved to Uzbekistan in the 1920s, accepted Islam and fused Russian avant-garde innovations with the traditions of medieval Muslim art.
The play includes scenes of teenage boy dancers, known as bachas, who were popular in Central Asia but banned by the Soviets as a "homosexual perversion."
The premiere Weil referred to before his death was a production of The Oresteia by ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus. "I'm opening the season tomorrow, whatever happens," were Weil's last words, according to Khripun.
The actors said the show would open Friday night.
Weil's body was to be transported to Moscow for cremation and the ashes taken to Seattle, the theater spokeswoman said.
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