‘Rus­sian Trans­port’

Wisconsin Gazette - - Front Page - By Michael Muck­ian Con­tribut­ing writer

Re­nais­sance Theater­works takes on a chal­leng­ing fam­ily crime drama that in­volves hu­man traf­fick­ing.

By many stan­dards, a good play is one that en­ter­tains, in­forms and chal­lenges au­di­ences. But when a play also chal­lenges its di­rec­tor, the au­di­ence may be in for a height­ened ex­pe­ri­ence.

Such is the case with Rus­sian Trans­port, play­wright Erika Sheffer’s gritty trea­tise on Rus­sian im­mi­grants try­ing to pur­sue the Amer­i­can dream in mod­ern-day Brook­lyn. De­scribed as a fam­ily crime drama and moral thriller, Sheffer’s play takes a hard look at some dif­fi­cult themes, which was al­most enough to scare off Milwaukee ac­tor and di­rec­tor Laura Gor­don.

“On first read, I thought, ‘Oh, I don’t know about this,’” says Gor­don. “The sub­ject mat­ter is su­per tough and I wasn’t sure I wanted to take it on.”

But what hap­pens with me is that I usu­ally have an in­tu­itive re­sponse, and if a play scares me, that’s a good sign. I knew that if we could get the right peo­ple in the room to­gether, we could fig­ure out how to do (it).”

Rus­sian Trans­port — which runs Jan. 19 to Feb. 11 in the Stu­dio The­ater at the Broad­way The­atre Cen­ter — fo­cuses on the strug­gles of im­mi­grants Misha (Reese Madi­gan) and Diana (El­iz­a­beth Ledo) and their ef­forts to pro­vide a home for chil­dren Alex (Max Pink) and Mira (April Paul). Misha runs a fail­ing car ser­vice and is in debt to the wrong peo­ple. Alex works for his fa­ther, along with hold­ing sev­eral other le­gal and il­le­gal jobs, the in­come from which he is re­quired to turn over to his par­ents. But the fam­ily’s ends still don’t meet.

En­ter Boris (Mark Puchin­sky), Diana’s brother, who’s vis­it­ing from Moscow. Ever the racon­teur, Boris makes his way through life by Old World stan­dards, which in his case in­cludes dab­bling in hu­man traf­fick­ing. Alex and Mira are im­me­di­ately drawn to their shady rel­a­tive, much to their par­ents’ dis­may.

The pro­fan­ity-laced script — writ­ten both in English and Rus­sian — is much like Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, Gor­don says, in the way it deals with fam­ily dy­nam­ics un­der pres­sure.

“They are both im­mi­grant sto­ries with ma­jor eth­i­cal prob­lems,” Gor­don says. “They’re re­ally about the dy­nam­ics of how fam­i­lies deal with crises, and that was my way into the ma­te­rial.”

Sheffer based Rus­sian Trans­port, her first play, on life in the Rus­sian en­clave of Brook­lyn’s Sheepshead Bay, where she was raised. Past pro­duc­tions have been de­scribed by re­view­ers as ”black com­edy” and a “moral­ity play with no moral­ity.” Gor­don ad­mits to com­ing to ad­mire the play’s char­ac­ters and its sense of hu­mor, some­thing that wasn’t ev­i­dent when she first read the man­u­script.

“No one is com­pletely a vil­lain or a cold, un­feel­ing per­son,” she says. “We worked hard to fig­ure out how this fam­ily op­er­ates.”

The di­a­logue is chal­leng­ing, thanks to the in­clu­sion of many Rus­sian lines and cuss words. Gor­don says her team worked

with Milwaukee ac­tor Gra­ham Billings, a UWM the­ater ma­jor with a mi­nor in Rus­sian, who helped with the for­eign words and phrases.

Ac­tor Mark Puchin­sky, who plays Boris, also serves as the pro­duc­tion’s Rus­sian lan­guage cap­tain. The ac­tor, who now lives in Brook­lyn, was born in Milwaukee to Rus­sian im­mi­grant par­ents and has an un­der­stand­ing of the en­vi­ron­ment in which the play’s char­ac­ters op­er­ate.

Gor­don says she’s main­tained a lot of Rus­sian un her pro­duc­tion. “Hope­fully, the au­di­ences with get the in­for­ma­tion they need from di­a­logue’s con­text.”

SEX TRAF­FICK­ING

Re­nais­sance Theater­works also is work­ing with sev­eral Milwaukee so­cial-ser­vice agen­cies fo­cused on sex traf­fick­ing to build aware­ness and help com­bat the crime in Milwaukee.

Ac­cord­ing to FBI sta­tis­tics, Milwaukee ranks third in the na­tion and is tied with Las Ve­gas as a sex-traf­fick­ing hub. Only Den­ver and Detroit rank higher.

Sta­tis­tics also in­di­cate that 92 per­cent of Milwaukee traf­ficked vic­tims are fe­male, 78 per­cent are African-Amer­i­can, and the av­er­age age at which a child is sold for sex is 13. Poverty, home­less­ness, un­em­ploy­ment and un­der-ed­u­ca­tion con­trib­ute to the prob­lem.

Ex­ploit No More, one of the show’s part­ners, is ded­i­cated to end­ing child sex traf­fick­ing in the greater Milwaukee area. Au­di­ence mem­bers are en­cour­aged to bring personal care items to the the­ater through­out the run as do­na­tions to vic­tims in need.

Other part­ner groups in­clude the Bene­dict Cen­ter — an in­ter­faith or­ga­ni­za­tion work­ing with the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem to make sure fair treat­ment is avail­able to all vic­tims of traf­fick­ing — and LO­TUS Le­gal Clinic, which serves vic­tims of gen­der-based vi­o­lence and hu­man traf­fick­ing through le­gal ad­vo­cacy, pol­icy ini­tia­tives, ed­u­ca­tion and sur­vivor em­pow­er­ment. All three groups will be on hand dur­ing the 2 p.m. per­for­mance Feb. 4 to an­swer ques­tions.

At its heart, Rus­sian Trans­port is a story of fam­ily, Gor­don says. Life is dif­fi­cult for im­mi­grants no mat­ter where they come from.

“The hu­man­ity of how they deal with cir­cum­stances and how they care for each other as a fam­ily wracked with this in­cred­i­ble moral and eth­i­cal dilemma is very com­pelling and ul­ti­mately very mov­ing,” Gor­don says.

PHOTO: ROSS ZENTNER

Max Pink, Reese Madi­gan, April Paul and El­iz­a­beth Ledo in Rus­sian Trans­port.

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