"I'm not crazy," says Joy Zinoman, artistic director of the Studio Theatre. It's the second time in less than an hour that her sanity has been at issue, and she's the one who keeps bringing it up.
If Zinoman feels as if she's going a little nuts, it's not hard to see why. For one thing, Studio -- a tremendous hive of construction activity these days -- is on the verge of completing a bold new expansion and renovation of its digs on 14th and P streets NW. Next month the company will open a third mainstage that will be twice the height of Studio's two current gems, the Mead and Milton, while sticking close to the essentially intimate footprints of their designs. The new theater is the centerpiece of a project that includes a marquee-covered entrance on 14th Street, improved performance space for Secondstage (Studio's developmental branch), classrooms, rehearsal rooms, set and costume shops, stylish lobbies and even an impressive two-story glass atrium looking out over 14th Street.
On top of all that, Zinoman and her team decided that now is the time to do a "Russian Winter" season revolving around contemporary Russian plays. The slate they came up with ranges from post-communist lyricism (or maybe anti-lyricism) in Oleg Bogaev's "The Russian National Postal Service," which opens the Studio's season tonight, to Vassily Sigarev's rough and rude "Black Milk" and the idiosyncratic string of events in "Terrorism" by the Presnyakov brothers.
"Two weird, glittery sort of guys," Zinoman says of Vladimir and Oleg Presnyakov, whose play is headed for the Secondstage along with U.S. writer Mark Jackson's "The Death of Meyerhold" and an October reading series of 10 recent Russian works.
Besides offering the local premiere of Richard Greenberg's "Take Me Out," last year's New York hit about a baseball player popping out of the closet (the exception to the Russian rule), the rep on the main stages will be balanced by what amounts to a pair of Russian stopovers in the British Isles. Studio will present the U.S. premiere of "Afterplay," a two-hander by Irish playwright Brian Friel ("Dancing at Lughnasa") involving an imagined late-life encounter between Sonya of Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya" and Andrey from "The Cherry Orchard."
"That's not a risky Russian play," Zinoman says. (This is when she declares for the second time that she's not crazy.) "That's a play for Nancy Robinette and Ed Gero," two of the area's busiest actors.
And at the heart of it all stands Chekhov, Zinoman's favorite writer -- a ranking she confirms with a devout nod. Two years ago Zinoman asked actor Philip Goodwin, a longtime colleague whom she was directing in Edward Albee's "The Play About the Baby," what else he might like to do. Goodwin's answer: "Ivanov," the drama of a stormy intellectual at odds with his existence. It's the first, and least performed, of Chekhov's major plays, but it had been freshly adapted by the omnipresent British dramatist David Hare. Rehearsals will begin, like those for the previous two Zinoman-directed Chekhov productions at Studio, with a working country retreat for the entire cast. "Ivanov" will open Studio's newest theater in November.
To hear Zinoman tell it, this Russian adventure gradually came together through a quirky confluence of events. Goodwin's suggestion was preceded by a message from one of Zinoman's sons reporting on theater from Moscow, and followed by another message from another son blown away by "Meyerhold" in San Francisco. Then there was a planned "family history" trip to Eastern Europe that ended up coinciding with a grant that swept her through the theaters of Moscow and St. Petersburg for three weeks, complete with a translator and guide -- though by the time she went late this spring, the new season was locked into place.
"Here I am at the Moscow Art Theatre; that's called a dream come true," Zinoman intones. She's pointing out one of the photos she's gathered for display; later will come her impressive collection of everyday Russian stuff from stamps and paper to packs of cigarettes and pulpy teen magazines.
What clinched Zinoman on the Russian idea was the new energy and freedom in the writing, something she began to follow almost two years ago after making contact with John Freedman, an American-born critic in Moscow. For much of the last century, playwrights were constrained by the Soviet system and directors grew adept at cramming subversion into conventional texts. But new writers have emerged in the years since the fall of communism, the monumental change of which is expressed in the Freedman-translated "Russian National Postal Service."
"He's a very Chekhovian character," Zinoman says of the script's lonely retiree, a man who seems to be searching desperately for his country. (Floyd King plays the role.) "The play could be a slapstick comedy, which it was in the commercial production [in Moscow], or it could be a very furious drama. I see it as a transitional play between the old Russian writing, where you have this great character and warmth and all that, and the more fantastic playing with style of the new writing."
The post-Soviet country has been vulnerable to chaos, from the so-called "gangster capitalism" that emerged in the 1990s and continues today (witness the murder this summer of Forbes magazine's Paul Klebnikov) to the recent siege at a school in Beslan, a horrific event that has thrust Russia to the front of the news. Unrest ripples through "Postal Service" and "Black Milk," a play about scuzzy young rip-off artists, and the relevance of "Terrorism" -- written before 9/11 and taking a rather unusual angle on the topic -- is all too clear.
Still, Zinoman was a bit surprised to find a Moscow that sometimes ran counter to the prevalent Wild West impressions that dominate the headlines.
"Don't get me wrong," she says. "I'm not saying it's not a place of struggle. I'm saying it's a place of energy and vigor, that I was never afraid."
And the theaters were packed.
"If there is any people in the world that can write for the theater, it's Russians," she believes. "And I think that maybe not now, but maybe in 10 or 15 years, you're going to see some major writing coming out of Russia. How can you not? There is so much new writing, so much new work, from this giant country."
But will this program be too alien for Washington audiences? Zinoman doesn't think so. International curiosity comes naturally to a lot of people here, and she points out that the area even has at least a couple of Russian theaters.
Her first answer to the "too foreign" question, though, is a little less on-the-nose.
"We're very ambivalent about this amazing renovation," Zinoman says. "On the one hand, we're very proud. On the other hand, we want to make sure that we remember why we're doing this is not to build buildings. So in a way, doing something that's very ambitious artistically is an antidote to make sure we remember that the purpose here is to have a space to do the work, to have a community of artists to do the work."