The land of opportunity. We welcome you to our shores but….be careful.
Don’t fall into the America trap, one that can be the painstakingly slow disintegration of your own personal American dream.
America can eat you alive.
That’s the message behind “The Russian Transport,” the exhilarating play by Erika Sheffer that opened Saturday night at Renaissance Theaterworks. Under the exquisite direction of Laura Gordon, the evening is one full of disturbing humor, pathos and a shared grief for a family that can’t see what is happening to them.
The play is the story of a Russian family of four who emigrated to the United State, presumably some time in the 1990’s, a time when their home country was a wild frontier with crime running wild and billionaire cowboys seemed to pop up every week.
The family is headed by Misha and his wife, Diana. Misha runs a struggling car service out of a closet in the family’s small home and he’s discontented at the difficulties he has providing for his brood.
Diana runs the household, taking the steps and the shortcuts she knows are necessary to keep this dream alive.Her weapon is her tongue and frank approach to the realities of her life and her family. Think Roseanne Barr with a heavy accent.
Son Alex was born in Russia and is a fully Americanized high school senior. He has a hidden devotion to his family, critical on the surface but loyal in depth. He goes to school, drives for his father and works at a Verizon store, all to contribute to the family bank account.
Mira was born in America and is a typical high school freshman girl. She’s worried about her future, she wants to have fun, she wants to spread her wings and she wants her mom to treat her like something other than a daughter. She thinks she’s an adult and wants everyone else to treat her like one.
From the earliest moments of the play, it’s apparent that this is not a family without ingrained stress.
The first hint is the moment between Diana and Mira. Diana’s brother Boris is finally coming to America and Mira questions why she has to sleep on the couch while her room is being turned over to Boris.
Diana: Is different with Boris.
Diana: Because I’m telling you so, shut you mouth.
Mira: If you, like, give me a reason instead of just talking to me like I’m retarded, maybe I wouldn’t…
Diana: Listen to me.
Diana: From now on you take you clothes into the bathroom when you shower, you understand?
Mira: You’re so gross.
Diana: And war a bra.
Mira: I don’t need to.
Diana: Yo need to! I’m looking at you right now. You like a gonilla, swinging from tree to tree.
Misha arrives after just having picked up Boris who immediately tries to establish rapport with the two children and an accommodation with his sister. There is history, unexplained so far, between the two of them.
What the audience can tell, from the earliest moments, is that Boris is not the innocent and eager immigrant that he seems. There is something darker and mysterious about him and he combines his sex appeal with a suspect kind of innocence that is both endearing and frightening.
Drip by drip – as if it’s death by a thousand cuts – this family begins to fall apart. From bitterness between Misha and Diana that is just a masquerade for their love to full-fledged bitterness, the father and mother move to polar opposite ends of the spectrum. Alex falls under the spell of his uncle and finds himself sliding ever deeper into a worrisome warren of activity and challenge.
Miss Gordon is a spectacular actor and accomplished director and she brings both to her directing challenges here. She is an actor’s director and gives each actor room to fully develop their own characters.
But she is also a creator and she has staged this play as a fully rounded and familiar family dynamic. People talk and move in concert with each other and independently of each other. It’s the way real people move and talk and is executed with immense skill by her wonderful cast.
Elizabeth Ledo is Diana, channeling every skewed and stunted emotion as a bittersweet mother who uses direct humor as her prime weapon. She challenges her reality with every member of her family, grudgingly tolerant of her present while driving each of them toward her chosen future.
Reese Madigan is Misha, full of obvious and unreasonable surety with a barely hidden discontent and uncertainty. Mr. Madigan is an actor of immense breadth, evidenced this season by his work in “Silent Sky” at Next Act Theatre and this turn as a Russian determined to be the oligarch of his own family.
April Paul delivers a bravura performance as Mira and as three young Russian newcomers, each of whom is headed toward a world as highly-prized escorts run by Boris and his criminal clan. Her Mira is everything a discontent high school freshman can be full of longing and hope and distrust. And the vulnerability she brings to each of her hookers-to-be is heartbreaking and begs for an intervention.
Mark Puchinsky, the son of Soviet immigrants, has the duplicity of Boris down pat. From his first moment, the audience can sense that all is not as it seems with this charmer.
It is left to young Max Pink to steal the show as the one character whose arc of development is the most immense. Mr. Pink is the son of Milwaukee Ballet Artistic Director Michael Pink and his wife Jane, and has inherited their ability ability to command a stage.
This production marked Mr. Pink’s first professional show and he was more than equal to the challenge of working with such experienced and able actors.His gradual slide into disillusionment is both graceful and agonizing.
There must also be mention of Jason Fassl, one of this country’s best lighting directors, who is beginning to make his name as a scenic designer as well. The demands of this play required the creation of three different rooms – living quarters, an upstairs bedroom and a cramped office. His work showed three distinct places to play, each one a reflection of the chaos of the lives of this family creating their own fulfillment of the dictum that someone who has overstayed their welcome.
Russian Transport runs through Feb. 11.
Production Credits: Director Laura Gordon; Stage Manager, Veronica Zahn; Assistant Stage Manager, Bailey Wegner; Scenic and Lighting Design, Jason Fassl; Assistant Scenic and Lighting Design, Marisa Abbott;Props Design, Ana McHenry; Sound Design, Megan B. Henninger; Costume Design, Jason Orlenko; Technical Director, Anthony Lyons; Dialect and Language Coach, Dramaturg, Graham Billings; Dialect Coach, Raeleen McMillion; Fight Choreography, Reese Madigan; Russian Language Captain, Mark Puchinsky; Production Photographer, Ross E. Zentner.