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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Cafe Combines Bread and Circuses

The financial crisis has emptied out many of Moscow's restaurants, but it has spurred at least one to find new ways of attracting customers.

The Exlibris cafe has opened a dinner theater, perhaps the first in the city using professional actors.

"I already had this idea, but it was difficult to combine both bread and circuses, but the crisis helped," said Olga Vasilyuk, a food and beverage manager at the Exlibris cafe who worked with its owners to bring in theater performances on Saturday nights.

"It is an alternative way of relaxation for people with high tastes," she said.

Starting at the end of October, the artsy cafe in southeast Moscow has treated diners to "Jubilee," a play based on a short story by Anton Chekhov.

The play even has a crisis theme - a bank facing collapse - and the actors have given it a more up-to-date look. The play begins with a recorded television news broadcast, and the actor who plays the bank chairman carries around a mobile phone.

The six actors, from various Moscow theaters, enjoy the chance to try a different type of theater while making a little extra money.

"The public here doesn't differ from the public at the theater," said Andrei Butin, 35, an actor from the Taganka Theater. "The only difference is that in the theater you can only feel the public, but here you are communicating to it, face to face."

Limited by the relatively small space of the cafe and lack of a real set, the actors interact more with the audience, often nibbling on the appetizers or sipping some wine.

"Here you have more improvisation, because here you can see how the public reacts," Butin said.

The public consists largely of well-to-do people who can afford to pay the equivalent of $50 a ticket, which includes simple appetizers and a glass of wine or champagne.

At the end of "Jubilee," the actors shared a large smoked sturgeon with the audience.

Guests also have the choice of ordering dinner from the menu: $11 for grilled salmon, $22 for a steak.

Nikolai Ptichkin, the head of the marketing department at Drofa publishing house, which owns Exlibris, said Drofa hopes the plays will attract more and more customers to its cafe and to its nearby bookstore as well.

"We hope that after a certain amount of time, this place will be crowded," Ptichkin said of the cafe. Another objective, he acknowledged, is to present a positive image of the company, the country's second largest publisher of educational books.

Drofa suffered from negative publicity after its commercial director was killed earlier this year.

"We wanted to show that money is important, but art is too," Ptichkin said.

The cafe, which now has performances Saturdays, hopes to expand to three days a week, featuring plays based on short stories by prominent Russian writers such as Nikolai Gogol and Mikhail Bulgakov, he said.

For New Year's Eve, the cafe is planning to put on a detective play in which the audience will take part.

"We are not pretending to be original, but we are trying to do everything on a good level," Ptichkin said. "We are using the method of trial and error."