It’s About Family
This month, Renaissance Theaterworks stages the provocative contemporary family drama Russian Transport. Originally staged in New York a little over half a decade ago, the story concerns itself with a Russian immigrant family living in Brooklyn. A casual visit from a member of the family reveals a dark criminality. The truth emerges from the shadows over the course of a couple of hours’ fully-engrossing drama. My wife and I had the good fortune of sitting in the front row for last night’s preview performance.
A Home Onstage
Scenic designer Jason Fassl does a wonderful job rendering a domestic reality onstage. It’s Brooklyn. Sheepshead Bay. From the kitchen viewed in a far edge of the stage to the dining room, living room and teenage girl bedroom, there are enough details present that it almost feels weird to see it all onstage. It feels real enough that the fourth wall feels like a lens into a space where people are actually living and feeling...not an easy thing to do in a studio theatre environment. There are really interesting visual themes as well...there’s a wall of old family photos up the stairs in the center of everything that have old family photos in them...immigrants remembering a past. Look over to the right of that and there’s a hug collage from the teenaged daughter...so many pictures and a map of the world. Dreams of someplace else from someone who just might go there.
The collage on the daughter’s wall is an interesting opportunity for a scenic designer to aid in the portrayal of a very sophisticated character. April Paul does the rest of the work. She’s playing Mira--a high school student who is trying to convince her mother to allow her out to Italy on a foreign study program. Her mother is a sharp wit played by Elizabeth Ledo with a cunning sense of depth. Mira’s mom doesn’t want her to go. She’s got secrets, but so does Mira...and everyone else in the family.
Wielding the single most convincing Russian accent in the whole ensemble, Mark Puchinsky plays visiting uncle Boris. The son of Russian immigrants to Milwaukee, the now Brooklyn-based Puchinsky lends the entire show that extra level of authenticity. Puchinsky has a dark charisma as Boris, who has come-in from elsewhere. It’s unclear at first precisely what he might be doing in Brooklyn, but his presence corrupts secrets out of the shadows and into plain view in a gripping story that echoes reflections of criminal intentions and human trafficking.
The Psychological Need For Distance
A story that ultimately deals with the subject of human trafficking can be a tricky one to deliver to an audience. The term is simple enough. As is the concept. As an audience, though, it’s really difficult to deal with the concept without building a huge emotional distance from the subject. It’s just too...alien a concept to make a connection with. And yet...it’s right here in the city. According to a report in the Guardian in 2015, ”Milwaukee is tied with Las Vegas for the third highest number of young people rescued during the FBI raids across the US.” Wisconsin is a hub of human trafficking. It’s really important for Renaissance Theaterworks to take a look at this and bring awareness to it because we can’t afford to look away. It’s right here.
Director Laura Gordon does a really good job of bringing everything together in a way that makes it seem perfectly relatable, which goes a long way toward making it all feel very, very heartbreakingly real. It’s the little things that make it all quite vivid.
Sit at the front of the house to the left if you can. That’s where the dining room table is. When Boris arrives, they all have dinner. And they’re all eating. Really. There is the sound of silverware against plates. The actual process of eating, which rarely gets staged. There’s a remarkably organic feel about a family eating together onstage...if they’re really eating there’s an added layer of reality.
Phones and Brands
It’s not something you’re likely to notice unless you’re in the front row on the leftt, but when Boris takes a picture of Mira on his phone...he’s actually taking a picture of Mira on his phone. There’s the sound of the click and that little flash that’s distinct to an iPhone. But if you’re sitting on the left in the front row...you can see April Paul in character looking into the camera of Mark Puchinsky in character as Boris taking the picture. It’s a moment between the two characters that might only feel vaguely creepy in the moment if you’re unaware of any of the rest of the plot, but the tangibility of that moment wouldn’t have been what it was without an active phone.
Sit in the front row and you can practically see the wallpaper on the screens of the phones. It would be all too easy to simply mime everything with the phones, but it’s so much less authentic if they’re not actually being used. Russian Transport makes this all the more necessary as Mira’s brother works for Verizon. Max Pink plays Alex--a young guy who works in a store selling phones for a company that gets its name mentioned enough that...you’d think playwright Erika Sheffer got paid by the company for embedded marketing. It works, though. That and the presence of a couple of other brands firmly roots the story in a concrete contemporary American reality. Remember: human trafficking isn’t just something that goes on in glowing screens and on stages and things. It happens in a real world with real world brands. People need to acknowledge human trafficking the way they acknowledge the reality of Verizon or Cheerios. It’s all too easy to pretend it doesn’t exist.
The Strange Stillness of the Car
Max Pink is ultimately hired to do a little bit of extra work that happens to include driving girls...all of whom are played by April Paul in a series of subtly naturalistic deviations. It’s really cool to see Paul play three different women without exaggerating the difference between them. Each one has arrived in New York from Russia, but there’s a subtle difference between each of them that feels very natural.
The car itself is just a seat that pulls out of the front of the stage. Pink mimes the movements of driving quite well, which is can be really difficult to do onstage without looking remarkably silly. The Russian flows quite heavily in those scenes. It’s been years since I’ve taken Russian and I haven’t used it since college. A first or second year Russian student can pick-up most of what’s going on, but you don’t have to know what’s being said to understand it. That first scene with his first...chauffeuring job is remarkably delicate. Even if you don’t know Russian, you know his reaction to her telling him how old she is. He plays it cool, but you know...and Pink is quite compelling as someone clearly in WAY over his head.
It doesn’t become completely clear just HOW in over his head Mira’s brother is until the nature of his work is revealed to her father, played with a stern gravity by Reese Madigan. Madigan is a steely paternal presence onstage which rounds-out the ensemble of a shockingly memorable drama.
Renaissance Theaterworks’ production of Russian Transit officially opens tonight and runs through Feb. 11 at the Broadway Theatre Center Studio Theatre. For ticket reservations and more, visit Renaissance Theaterworks online.