MST eschews standard samovar theater for Williams, Shaw

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — The Moscow Sovremennik Theater returned to the U.S. this month — but not on Broadway, where it played in 1996-97 to rave reviews and substantial audiences. Instead, it nestled in among gaming tables and slot machines.

This time out, MST was booked into a casino-resort, betting heavily that East Coast Russians, particularly some high-rollers, would be attracted to this new Borscht belt of legit fare. For the four-perf weekend gig Nov. 18-20 at Foxwoods Resort and Casino in eastern Connecticut, the company eschewed standard samovar theater for Tennessee Williams and George Bernard Shaw — spoken entirely in Russian and without translation.

MST presented an adaptation of Williams’ “Sweet Bird of Youth” and Shaw’s “Pygmalion” in its 1,400-seat Fox Theater, with a top ticket of $125. Following the quartet of shows, which received Equity and IATSE waivers, and after a few days of sightseeing, the company — consisting of about 50 actors and a support staff and crew of more than 20 — returned to Moscow.

It’s the second time out for Russian theater with roulette. The casino and the New York-based Firebird Group brought the 50-year-old theater company to its entertainment and gambling complex last year, selling out its four shows weeks in advance and attracting 7,800 theatergoers, mostly Russians, for two 20th-century plays, “Three Comrades” and “Difficult People.”

Marina Kovalyov and Rina Kirshner, the mother-daughter team who run Firebird, which doubles as a PR, marketing and consulting company, declined to give specifics of the costs but says the total pricetag runs into the high six figures. Firebird produced and promoted the event, with assistance from the casino.

“They are not underwriting,” says Kirshner. “They are assisting to make it happen and in so doing share some of the box office revenue.”

Tom Cantone, vice president of marketing and entertainment for Foxwoods, says last year’s event was a plus for the casino, and that there was a “measurable increase” in gambling during the days of the performance.

Many casinos in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and Connecticut have presented international acts for Greek, Italian, Asian and Russian audiences, but they have largely been musical, dance and comedy perfs. Only the Russian market, driven by both a history of theater and a love of gambling, has been specifically targeted for legit productions of this type.

Foxwoods and Firebird did a targeted marketing sweep aimed at the estimated 1.5 million Russian population on the East Coast, especially those in New York who traditionally travel to Atlantic City for their gaming. But for non-Russian theatergoers, the company’s reappearance in the U.S. was untrumpeted.

“We really don’t get theater people, so it’s not marketed to general audiences,” Cantone says.

When MST played Broadway in the ’90s with “The Cherry Orchard,” “Three Sisters” and “After the Whirlwind,” it presented legit shows for a sold-out weekend engagement in Atlantic City as well.

Kovalyov and Kirshner say that since the company played Broadway, there have been inquiries to bring the troupe back to the U.S. by major arts institutions like the Kennedy Center. But finances for the large company — which has financial problems of its own due to loss of government subsidy — have made such a return prohibitive.

MST’s latest mini-tour was enabled by Foxwoods’ resources and technical staff, an entrepreneurial model that Firebird intends to replicate with return U.S. visits of the Russian troupe every few years. Kirshner says she hopes to bring the company to the West Coast, which is outside of the casino’s exclusive arrangements.

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