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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

For American Students, All the World's a Stage

For MTStudents Matthew Raines, left, and Raphael Schklowsky starring in the school's production of "True West" last fall.
When Vaz Santosham, as Yermolai Lopakhin, a lowborn merchant, slammed his hand against the wall and yelled, in completely unaccented Russian, "I tell you in plain Russian that your estate will be sold!" the audience loved it. It is the only Russian phrase in the English-language staging of Anton Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard" by the 16-member cast of American and Russian theater students graduating this week from a four-year program at the Chekhov Moscow Art Theater School.

The class graduating on May 23 is composed of New Yorkers who studied together at LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, Wayne State University alumni who had already studied acting in Detroit and three Russians. The students from New York were the reason for the existence of the program, which was organized by a recently retired LaGuardia teacher, Russian-born Marat Yusim.

"It's phenomenal that this class finished a four-year program -- it is the first such case in the history of the United States and Russia," Yusim said. When he decided to send promising acting students to Russia to study theater, he had to overcome the skepticism of Moscow Art Theater director Oleg Tabakov, the school's fears of the course being just a tourist trap and parents' apprehensions about sending their children to Russia.

But he felt it was worth it. "There are many schools in New York, and each says it uses Stanislavsky's method. I thought: Why not send students to the place where the system originated?"

Some of the students who arrived in Russia for the four-year course were just 18, and they experienced twice the culture shock that goes with leaving home to go to college. Forty-plus hours of classes and rehearsal per week, professors who were not sure how to treat Americans and day-to-day communication with Russians, who can be "abrasive," were among the challenges, student Alesia Georgiou said.

Deirdre Ortiz, who came in with the Wayne State group, feels that the addition of new students helped more than by just keeping the program afloat: "We were able to increase the range of the company. They were younger; they didn't have grown men or women," she said, adding that the newcomers gave the cast more options in choosing plays.

During the graduation week's farewell performances, "The Cherry Orchard" is the only play by a Russian author the group is putting on. Georgiou said she felt that playing Chekhov in Russia was special. "I don't think I ever understood Chekhov at all until I came here," she said. Living among Russians has given cast members a special understanding of the characters, she said.

Another way this performance differed from the others the group has put on is that it was directed by Vladimir Petrov, a professional director, rather than by a student director. "It took only six weeks to put the show together," Ortiz said. "We worked 10 hours a day."

The director had never staged Chekhov before and wanted to have an original take on the classic play. Some of his fresh ideas include the music -- the purportedly Russian characters sang traditional American ditties such as "You Are My Sunshine" and "Sidewalks of New York."

When the students arrived, none of them spoke Russian. They took 2 1/2 hours of Russian instruction every morning and used interpreters to receive instruction from professors who did not speak English. But their Russian is near-perfect now -- Raphael Schklowsky has even been invited to play a Russian in a Russian movie to be filmed this summer.

One of the Russian cast members, Ivan Bukchin, decided to study with the Americans because when he applied, the only spot left at the school was in the English-language program. The need to act in a foreign language helped him hone expression, he said. "The words, the language don't matter as much; the most important thing is to act, and then you'll be understood."

The American students will fly home after graduation, but several plan to come back to see more of Russia. They talk of staying together and performing in the United States after their return.

"I really hope they do," Yusim said, proudly pointing out the impressive repertoire the cast has. "I couldn't imagine they'd become real professionals -- now we're thinking of how to get them back as a touring company."

British Ambassador Tony Brenton was among those at Saturday's performance. "I'm not here as an ambassador but as a lover of Chekhov," he said to the students. "You did a great job tonight."

The students perform "Our Town" on Wed., "Ballad of the Sad Cafe" on Thurs., "The Cherry Orchard" on Fri. and "Othello" and "The Taming of the Shrew" on Sat. All performances are in English and are at 7 p.m. at the Chekhov Moscow Art Theater in the Uchebny Theater (except the Fri. show, on the New Stage), 3a Kamergersky Pereulok. Metro Teatralnaya. Tel. 229-8760.