The black-box studio on 8th Avenue in Manhattan was small, but the crowd pushing in was determined to fill it well beyond capacity. Spectators sat on the stairs and filled in the aisles, but somehow everyone squeezed into the theater. On stage was a simple set: two tables, two chairs, and two actresses.
The spectators had come to Ripley-Grier Studios to watch the premiere production of Equation with Two Unknowns, a new Russian-language play by a young theater company, the Theater of Russian Actors. Also known by its Russian acronym, TRACT, the theater exists to feed the hunger for Russian-language theater in New York; but, just as importantly, it exists for the actors themselves.
"They cannot live without acting. […] It burns them out from inside if this energy does not go out, if they don’t perform,” said Mikhail Galkin, producer and founder of TRACT. “And the more talented they are, the more problems they have then if they don’t perform.”
This is no amateur community theater; all of the actors were professionally trained in Russia. Some continued their theatrical careers when they immigrated to America, while others had to make a living in other professions. This theater offers an outlet for that creative talent, while fulfilling the Russian-American community’s enthusiasm for quality theater – which, as the size of the crowd demonstrated, is high.
The performance which premiered on June 28th was a combination of two plays: The Human Voice by Jean Cocteau, written in 1930, and The Stronger by August Strindberg, written in 1889. The selections show the international scope of the theater’s interests: two dramas composed in French and Swedish, translated into Russian, premiering in New York.
Though the works come from separate countries, separate languages, even separate centuries, their pairing was a natural choice. Both works are technically monologues, but the silent presence of another human speaks volumes. In Equation with Two Unknowns, two actresses are on stage for the entire one-act play, but the second woman does not speak for the first hour – and when she does finally speak, it’s with a gun in her hand.
The first character, Mrs. Y, speaks to her ex-lover on the phone – or, as it becomes increasingly clear, just in her mind. Blues musician Gennady Bulaev plays guitar off-stage, his sultry melodies representing an imagined dialogue with the missing lover. The second character, Mrs. X, has her back turned to the audience for most of the first half of the play, but it’s easy to guess what role she played in this affair.
Mrs. Y was played by Snezhana Chernova, best known in the U.S. for her role as Yelena Burova in the hit show The Americans. Chernova admires her character, she said, for clinging to life even after she’s been betrayed.
"She's grateful to what happened to her, the whole experience to be with him,” Chernova told Eurasianet. “She's full of love. She lives because she has that love.”
Though the demand for this show was high, “it’s hard for Russian theater to exist here,” admits Elena Ouspenskaia, who played Mrs. X. An Honored Artist of Russia, Ouspenskaia moved to the United States in 1992, and returned to acting in the past few years after a career in graphic design.
TRACT is one of a handful of theaters in New York that present plays in Russian, including the STEPS Theater and Dialogue Theater. It tries to stand out with the professionalism of its cast.
“I believe our uniqueness is based on a right choice of the plays, on a right choice of actors, and mostly on a right choice of directors,” Galkin, a TV producer and former vice president of the Russian-American satellite channel RTVI, told Eurasianet.
Before founding TRACT, Galkin ran Chaverim, a theater specializing in Russian-Jewish productions. He decided that his new theater wouldn’t be limited to any particular theme, genre, or style: The plays would be whatever he and his director and actors wanted: comedy or drama, Russian or international. Take last year’s main production: a version of Crime and Punishment reimagined as an absurd comedy about modern Russia, titled Raskolnikov and the Pawnbroker: A Love Story.
TRACT is a repertory theater, meaning that is has a set of plays in regular rotation, while still often premiering new ones. Based on audience feedback, popular plays can remain on the repertory for years. The premiere of Equation with Two Unknowns was only one night, but the theater plans to bring it back in the fall with English subtitles. There are also plans for plays by Shakespeare and Chekhov and more showings of Raskolnikov and the Pawnbroker.
The theater is marked by its openness to trying anything. There’s no set political message, style, or audience, beyond “people who love theater,” said Galkin. And while the play was in Russian, the troupe still calls itself proudly American.
"We are working in the Russian language, but we are Americans and we are an American company,” said director Lev Shekhtman. “For us, the language is our own native language where we can communicate the best and actors can reveal themselves the best."
Sharon Lurye is a Brooklyn-based journalist and a graduate of the Columbia University School of Journalism. @sharonlurye