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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Nobles and Fairies in British Ambassador's Garden

For MTVernon Wheeler (Lysander), left, rehearsing with Terence Fabian (Theseus) and Liz Steele (Hippolyta) at the Otradnoye Center.
By day they are diplomats, businessmen, journalists and teachers. By night they are Athenian nobles, Elizabethan workmen and a bunch of fairies.

An amateur cast of five nationalities -- British, American, Canadian, Russian and one Spaniard -- will raise the curtain Thursday night on four performances of an open-air production of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in the gardens of the British ambassador's residence.

The production will be staged by Moscow's first English-language amateur theater troupe, the Moscow Players, founded in January by Alice Babington Hill, a British theater enthusiast, and Natalia Ivanova, one of Russia's recent repatriates.

The well-spoken Babington Hill, 25, who is directing the play, moved to Moscow last fall after working for Prince Michael of Kent, a Russophile member of the British royal family. A classically trained singer and music graduate, she has considerable experience of performing and directing in award-winning amateur productions in Britain.

"I came to Moscow for a weekend in September to say goodbye and close that chapter in my life before starting my drama MA in London," said Babington Hill in a recent interview in her apartment near Patriarch's Ponds. The apartment, which she shares with Ivanova, doubles as the production's office and is suitably chaotic.

"I was having such a good weekend that I said to a Georgian friend that maybe I should move to Moscow. He asked me what I would do and I said, 'I don't know. Maybe direct a play? And then I thought: why not?"

Luke Tchalenko / For MT

Fred Durman (Oberon), Irene Krasovskaya (Titania) and Tomas Reyes Ortega (Puck).



So with her place at drama school in London deferred for a third year in a row, Babington Hill set about putting the plan into action. Meeting Ivanova, the play's producer, was key to getting the project off the ground.

Ivanova, who was born and raised in the sub-freezing temperatures of Kamchatka in the Far East, has started carving out a career for herself almost as fairytale-like as the gossamer and moonshine of the plot of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." She found her way to Oxford University, where she studied history and economics, spending much of her student years in different aspects of theater production.

She was very excited by Babington Hill's concept and the experience and contacts she had gained during her work in the commercial wing of the British Embassy in Moscow, and she brought marketing and fundraising skills to the project.

The pair approached the British ambassador, Sir Roderic Lyne, about using the residency garden as a venue. "I suppose it might have been a bit cheeky really," said Babington Hill, giggling.

But, the ambassador, as it turned out, was a bit of an "am dram" enthusiast himself and was keen to help out.

With the venue fixed, auditions were advertised in the English-language press in Moscow and through the e-mail lists of international business clubs. Nearly 70 hopefuls from eight countries auditioned, ranging in age from their 20s to 60s. No prior experience was required, only the ability to speak English.

There is an irony behind Babington Hill's choice of play for the troupe's debut, given that "A Midsummer Night's Dream" contains a group of workmen, led by Nick Bottom, the weaver, and Peter Quince, the carpenter, that is rehearsing a play of its own. For the play, "Pyramus and Thisbe," the workmen have only one day to learn their parts and hold only one fragmentary rehearsal.

"Is all our company here?" asked Quince, the play's author, director and producer at the start of the rehearsal.


Luke Tchalenko / For MT

Olga Masalkova (Helena) and Kenzie Burchell (Demetrius) sharing a light moment.

That is a question that Babington Hill has also had to ask frequently.

"It is the challenge of working with amateurs, many of whom work in big international companies," she said.

One cast member had to pull out of the production early on because his company decided to hold its annual shareholders meeting in New York on the opening night.

"He said, 'There's nothing I can do apart from resign, which might be a little drastic for 20 lines!' I said, 'Where's your commitment?" she said, laughing.

Another challenge was overcoming the cast's different accents as they grappled with Elizabethan English.

"From the beginning I had to be very strict with the words," Babington Hill said.

"The four young lovers all have American accents, and the four 'grown up' Athenians have frightfully English accents. It's interesting hearing the different sounds and interpretations of the words."

Tomas Reyes Ortega, the extrovert Spaniard who plays the mischievous fairy Puck, and whose day job in Moscow is working for the Tacis program of the European Commission, conceded that the language was a little challenging at first and that other cast members were sometimes a little puzzled by his pronunciation.

Like many of the cast members, Reyes Ortega acted when he was at university and was part of an amateur theatrical group when he lived in Brussels. But apart from his student days, Reyes Ortega said he would not have the opportunity to act as an amateur in his home country.

"In the south of Spain, where I'm from, we have flamenco, but nothing like the British amateur dramatics tradition," he said.

Luke Tchalenko / For MT

Nearly 70 hopefuls from eight countries auditioned for "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

In Russia, the situation regarding amateur dramatics is more complex.

Dmitri Pancov, an English teacher who plays the workman Snug, conceded that Russia's intelligentsia can be snobbish about amateur theater, despite Russia's rich amateur theater tradition of the 19th century. Indeed, Russia's most worshiped theater, the Moscow Art Theater, was founded by the son of a wealthy industrialist, Konstantin Stanislavsky, who directed his first play in a family theater.

But the Moscow Players is not just an amateur troupe. It has been set up on a not-for-profit basis and the aim is that its first production will raise $40,000 to support the work of Otradnoye, a shelter for homeless children and adolescents in the north of Moscow.

"It's the most brilliant place," Babington Hill said.

"From the start they not only wanted our help with raising their profile but also wanted the children to be involved in the project. So all our rehearsals are being held there, and the children will do a presentation about the center in the performance intervals."

With tickets nearly sold out, the only thing that could now put a damper on the open-air production is a downpour. But it would not be a British event without some rain.



British Ambassador's Residence Garden, 14 Sofiiskaya Naberezhnaya. M. Novokuznetskaya, Borovitskaya. Thursday to Sunday at 7:30 p.m. Ticket reservations hotline: 509-5458. reservations@themoscowplayers.com.