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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Transatlantic Love Onstage




The foreigners have been bitten and are smitten. They can't quite say why, but the Canadian actor, American actress and American director involved in "Once Upon a Time in Russia" (Odnazhdy v Rossii) at the House of Actors feel that Russian theater is something exceptional.


"Theater here, it's just a whole different animal," said Sue Bredenberg, whose own acting career has become inextricably tied to Russia, which she first visited in 1991 as a college student on a theater program.


She is back again to play the role of Pat, an American who ventures to present-day Moscow in search of her unknown half-brother Nikolai. Accompanying her on stage is Canadian Fred Mattern, who recently returned from a two-year stint on a Novosibirsk stage - living, as he said, "like a Russian actor, on a Russian actor's salary." His character, Pete Anderson, is Pat's father, a former U.S. officer whose wartime love affair with a Russian woman in the Soviet Union we see as flashbacks throughout the play.


The actors, director and playwright knew each other long before the curtain went up. Director Joshua Karter, currently a professor at Trinity College in San Francisco, ran the program that Bredenberg and Mattern attended in the early '90s at Moscow's Kisnitsky Gate Theater, where playwright Sergei Desnitsky worked over a five-year interval in his 30-something years at the Moscow Art Theater. The main cast is rounded out by Desnitsky himself as Nikolai, his wife, Yelena Kondratova, Yekaterina Korolyova as Nikolai's daughter, Olga, and Desnitsky's 17-year-old daughter, Vera, who normally stage manages but has come to know the work so well that she was able to fill in once as Olga.


Perhaps the idea for the play was born over a friendly Russian dinner with American playwright John O'Keefe a few years back. The visitor was being entertained by the Desnitsky family and expressed his desire to write a play for the couple.


"He likes vodka very much," reminisced Desnitsky, breaking into English. "But then after three e-mails, John was lost."


So Desnitsky wrote the script himself. The plot is loosely based on the story of Zoya Fyodorova (who serves as the prototype for Kondratova's Nina), a Soviet film actress who, at the end of World War II, fell in love and had a child with an American officer. Many years later, Fyodorova was exiled to a Siberian labor camp; she died of a gunshot wound under murky circumstances in Moscow in 1987. The Russian playwright's inspiration also had a more personal source: In the mid-1940s, a friend of Desnitsky's mother had also fallen in love and had a child with an American who, like other foreigners in the post-war period, was forced from the Soviet Union as persona non grata and never saw his child again.


When Desnitsky asked Karter to direct the play, the American, who has journeyed to Russia 11 times in eight years, didn't hesitate to agree.


"I love Russian theater audiences," Karter wrote by e-mail from the United States. "I've found that theater is very important to many people in Russia - more so than in America. And it's a pleasure to make work for audiences who truly value it."


Mattern, who has a Russian wife, is more fascinated with the play's historical aspects than with its transatlantic love story; the Canadian actor has recently been reading up on Soviet times. Like his American counterparts, he has a healthy obsession with Russian theater.


"Even in '92 when I didn't speak Russian, I found Russian actors very good to work with in terms of their method," said Mattern, who claims to feel almost more at home here than in Canada.


"Actors of the younger generation seem pretty much the same all over the world, but there's something I noticed about actors from the older generation. They just do something differently," he said. "Even while they grew up in a totalitarian state, there was a weird sort of freedom they had when they got on the stage. ... There's a sort of generosity or honesty. It's certainly something I admire."


"There's really the strong belief in the theater, that the tradition is something very important," Bredenberg said. "People that you've never met will come up to the stage and give you flowers."


"Odnazhdy v Rossii" runs Feb. 16, 18, 21, 28 and 29 at 7 p.m. at the House of Actors, 2nd floor, 35 Old Arbat. Metro Arbatskaya, Smolenskaya. Tel. 248-1894/9228/ 9106.