Floyd King shuffles onstage at Studio Theatre in a robe and slippers, sits at a table and begins composing a letter. In "The Russian National Postal Service," the comic actor plays Ivan Sidorovich Zhukov, an elderly pensioner who has fallen through the cracks in the new, capitalist Russia. To pass the time, he writes letters to himself from childhood friends andhistorical figures like Lenin and Queen Elizabeth II. He answers them, too.

"The idea of the Russian little guy," an iconic figure in the culture, is at the core of Oleg Bogaev's bittersweet comedy, says King. It runs through Oct. 17, opening a Studio season comprising mainly contemporary Russian works.

"My initial reaction to it when I read it was 'beautiful and odd,' " says the actor. It seemed like "Chekhov meets Beckett meets Ionesco." Having rehearsed it, King now finds it "more naturalistic." He's had to learn to play the accordion, sing Russian songs and speak a bit of the language.

Paul Mullins is directing King and a supporting cast of 11. "It's a one-man show with 12 people," he laughs, noting that Ivan's active imagination renders the figures from his correspondence quite real.

It's worth wondering whether a play by a Russian writer unknown to American audiences will resonate with them. King thinks it will. "How I think it reflects on us is the Social Security issue." The veteran of the battle of Stalingrad was told by the old Soviet system, "Here are the rules. You obey them and we'll take care of you," says King. Now the system is gone and he's been forgotten.

Adds Mullins, "A larger spiritual context is this is a man whose life is coming toward its end and he no longer belongs there." Mullins says he senses a similar ethos in this play and Russian plays of a hundred years ago. "That Russian spirit is a bridge across the century -- that sense of humor and melancholy and sense of fight against the dying of the day."

'Elephant' Bridge

The creative team behind Catalyst Theater Company's production of Bernard Pomerance's "The Elephant Man" represents a bridge across generations of the Washington theater community.

Scott Fortier, founder and artistic director of the young company, plays the title character. He is directed by his former Catholic University teacher Jim Petosa, artistic director of Olney Theatre Center. The play runs Thursday through Oct. 16 in Capitol Hill Arts Workshop's intimate theater space on Seventh Street SE.

"I think it's great that they look to us for collaborative energy, and also it's good for us to go in there and do it," says Petosa of the cross-theatrical, cross-generational cross-pollination.

"We knew we were going to do 'Elephant Man,' " Fortier says, and "I knew it was the kind of play [Petosa] would love to direct. There's a level of humanity that Jim can always reach in his plays and this is a perfect play for him."

Fortier, who spent two years in Olney's young professional touring troupe and performed in Olney's "Equus" a few seasons back, says Petosa continued to be his mentor when he launched Catalyst.

"You start a relationship with young theater artists when they're in school. And when you're lucky enough to carry those relationships into professional work, I've found that to be a source of tremendous satisfaction," says Petosa. "What was really compelling to me was [Fortier] in this role, because I could see it," says the director. "He has an ability to throw himself into his work. . . . He leaps into it."

Written in the 1970s, "The Elephant Man" is based on the real John Merrick, whose disfiguring illness relegated him to carnival sideshows in Victorian England until a prominent surgeon took him in. "It's a very visceral play. I think it really hits people on a soulful level," says Fortier. Unlike David Lynch's 1980 film, Pomerance's play asks audiences to imagine Merrick's appearance, which the actor must imply with movements and postures.

Fortier is a runner and has studied yoga, but the physical demands of the role have surprised him. "I guess freezing in a position for an extended amount of time just takes a lot out of you," understates the actor.

Deadly Secret

If Backstage told you, we'd have to kill you. So suffice it to say that the gender of J. Hiroyuki Liao will remain undisclosed here, in keeping with a central plot point of "M. Butterfly," at Arena Stage through Oct. 16.

Liao plays Song Liling, a star of the Chinese opera in David Henry Hwang's play, based on a true story about the sexuality-blurring romance between the singer and a British diplomat. The show premiered in Washington in 1988.

This is the first professional job for the Brooklyn-bred Liao, a freshly minted graduate of the drama program at Juilliard. A child of immigrants from Japan and Taiwan, the performer speaks Japanese but no Chinese. Liao looked into Kabuki theater for ideas about the character's movements, and Arena had an instructor of Chinese opera make a tape for reference on that art form.

"I was afraid my rookieness was going to show, so I researched as much as I could . . . about China, the Cultural Revolution, Mao, the Big Four . . . all the way up to Tiananmen Square," says Liao.

"It's a great first job . . . maybe the most challenging thing I've ever had to face in acting. It's so beautifully written, one of the most beautiful parts written ever for an Asian American. I'm just going to try to soak up every single second that I have here."

Follow Spots

* Several downtown theater companies will participate next week in Arts on Foot, celebrating theaters, galleries and restaurants in the growing Seventh Street NW arts district and environs. The Saturday, Sept. 18, event runs from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and includes performances at the Warehouse Theatre and the National Theatre's Helen Hayes Gallery, a costume sale by Ford's Theatre and a Shakespeare trivia contest by the Shakespeare Theatre. Visit www.artsonfoot.org for details.

* Scena Theatre opens its season with "Ivona, Princess of Burgundia" by Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz. The play opens Thursday and runs through Oct. 3 at the Warehouse Theatre. Then Scena will take it to a festival in Lublin, Poland, dedicated to Gombrowicz. Call 703-684-7999.

For his role in "The Russian National Postal Service," Floyd King had to learn to play the accordion, sing Russian songs and speak a bit of the language.J. Hiroyuki Liao and Stephen Bogardus in Arena Stage's "M. Butterfly."