In the first scene of Act 1, the audience meets Leon Tolchinsky, a thirtyish schoolteacher who has just accepted a new assignment in the remote Ukrainian village of Kulyenchikov. The year is 1890. Leon addresses the audience to explain his new job. He applied for and received the position by mail, so he is seeing the town for the first time. As he admires the town from its outskirts, he runs into Snetsky, the shepherd. Following introductions, Snetsky reveals that he has lost his sheep, which happens to him frequently. He also tells Leon that many, many schoolteachers have come before him, but none of them lasted even a day. He then tells Leon that everyone in Kulyenchikov is stupid, which makes Leon’s job nearly impossible. When Leon mentions that he has been hired by Dr. Zubritsky to tutor his daughter, Sophia, Snetsky informs him that she is especially dim-witted. The scene ends as Leon heads into town, somewhat nervously, to see if Snetsky’s description is accurate. The magistrate announces the time: nine o’clock in the morning.
In Act 1, Scene 2, Leon is further in his journey through Kulyenchikov. He encounters Yenchna, Mishkin, and Slovitch. Slovitch is the town butcher, Mishkin is the postmaster, and Yenchna is a street vendor. Like Snetsky, Yenchna, Mishkin, and Slovitch are very dumb, and their conversations with each other and Leon often go in circles. When Leon inquires about the location of Dr. Zubritsky’s house, each of them points in a different direction. Puzzled, Leon leaves and hopes to stumble upon it on his own. After he leaves, the three locals ponder whether Leon knows about the "curse."
The action shifts to Dr. Zubritsky’s house in Scene 3. The doctor is giving the magistrate a rather ineffective eye exam. As the doctor sends the magistrate on his way, Lenya enters excitedly to inform him that the new schoolteacher has arrived. Lenya feels very strongly that Leon might be the one to break the curse, but both she and the doctor have trouble remembering the word curse. When Leon enters, they ask him to demonstrate his learning by asking them questions. They are very excited about his questions but are unable to answer them. They inform Leon of the "Curse of Kulyenchikov" and let him read about it in a book. According to legend, Casimir Yousekevitch and Sophia Zubritsky were engaged to each other back in 1691. Sophia’s father was highly educated and refused to allow his daughter to marry the illiterate Casimir. When Casimir killed himself, his father (a sorcerer) put a curse on the Zubritsky family and the...
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