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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Western Troupe Brings Miller to Moscow Stage

When Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" opens tonight at the Tabakov Theater, in English, it will be the start of an adventure for 17 American, Canadian and British graduate students. It will also be the continuation of an ongoing enterprise that links theater schools in Moscow, Pittsburgh and Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The Carnegie-Mellon/Moscow Art Theater School Program -- or the American Studio of the Moscow Art Theater, as it is being called in Moscow -- is now in its second year of existence. It brings together young professional actors who wish to sharpen their skills by studying with top teachers both in the United States and at the Moscow Art Theater School, one of the city's, and the world's, most renowned theater training centers.

Most of the students already have plenty of experience under their belts. Many have been working for years in New York theater, while some are taking sabbaticals from budding careers in Hollywood television.

For Elizabeth Orion, the head of the program at Carnegie-Mellon and the director of "The Crucible," it is an opportunity to bring a "strong American play" to a Russian audience.

"We looked for something that had a lot of guts," she said.

The play, Miller's most politically charged, was written as a reaction to the infamous anti-communist campaign spearheaded by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the United States in the 1950s. Its setting is the Salem witch trials in 1692, and it probes the problems of individual conscience and guilt by association.

Orion has expanded the play slightly for very practical reasons: The play has 16 parts, and she wanted to have something for every one of her students to do. So, during scene changes, the additional character of Cotton Mather, the controversial clergyman who is often regarded as the epitome of Puritan fanaticism, will come on stage to deliver short readings from his writings.

"People don't realize how very much alive witches were at that time," said Orion. "The devil is right there chastising Salem, and God sent him there to do it."

But the director wanted to go beyond merely staging Miller's parallel between America in the 1690s and the 1950s. In the theater's foyer, she hopes to set up an exhibit that will "update" the historical parallels by including information from some of the most notorious abuse trials in recent years.

Orion's own personal trip to Moscow has been a circuitous one. She began her acting career in her native England with Joan Littlewood's Workshop in London in the early 1960s, participating in famous productions of "Oh, What a Lovely War!" and "A Taste of Honey." By 1969 she had moved on to Michigan in the United States, joining the John Fernald Theater Group, where she also did some teaching.

Seventeen years ago, Orion joined the faculty at Carnegie-Mellon in Pittsburgh where, between 1985 and 1995, she was the chairwoman of the acting department. This year she stepped down from that position, looking for a little more freedom to both teach and act.

As the head of this year's graduate group, Orion has been with the students since last summer, when their studies kicked off at the Stanislavsky Summer School in Cambridge. They then moved on to Pittsburgh for four months of classes and practical training, which culminated in December with the first eight performances of "The Crucible." Excepting minor changes to fit the new venue, it is the same show that audiences will see Friday, Saturday and for all remaining performances that will continue until May.

When not performing, the students will be busy studying Russian-style acting with their Russian teachers. The result of those studies, which got a head start in Pittsburgh with the Russian actor and director Oleg Tabakov, will be a series of English-language performances of "The Diary of a Scoundrel," by the classic Russian playwright Alexander Ostrovsky. It is scheduled to open at the Tabakov Theater at the end of March.

"The Crucible," an English-language production of the Carnegie-Mellon University/Moscow Art Theater School Program, plays Feb. 23 and 24, March 4, 10, 19, 26, 27 and 30, and runs until May at the Tabakov Theater, 1A Ulitsa Chaplygina. Tel. 928-9685 or 200-4241.