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