Published in KPBS On Air Magazine May 1995

While working in a travel bookstore in Seattle a few years back, Erika Warmbrunn noticed that there were two countries — Mongolia and Vietnam — that never appeared in any book titles. Those were the places she wanted to go.

One day, she got a call from a friend of a friend of a friend, one Ralph Elias, who ran a little theater company in San Diego.   Elias was hoping to take his Blackfriars Theatre production to Far Eastern Russia, and Erika was recommended as an interpreter. Having majored in Russian at Bryn Mawr, traveled to Russia several times, and worked with theater companies in Seattle, Cleveland and elsewhere, 27 year-old Erika seemed the perfect choice for Elias. And Elias was her ticket to Mongolia.

She quit her job, abandoned her apartment, bought a bicycle and began an unforgettable 11-month adventure.   July 1993 was spent in Vladivostok, sister city of San Diego, with the Blackfriars’ acclaimed San Diego production of Beth Henley’s “Abundance”, directed by Elias. It was the first time an American arts organization performed in that part of Russia, and the highly successful event was the subject of a Russian TV documentary, broadcast nationally. The tour was hosted primarily by the Maxim Gorky Theatre, the official theatre company of the Primorskii (Maritime) region.

When she finished her translation and interpreting duties, Warmbrunn hopped on her bicycle, and embarked on an 8-month, 5000 mile solo trip from Mongolia across China and through Vietnam to Saigon.   “I was out of shape, I couldn’t fix much more than a flat tire, and I’d never done any off-pavement bicycling,” says the affable interpreter. “I didn’t speak Vietnamese, Chinese, or Mongolian, though the Russian helped with the Mongolian…. These countries had been closed. I wanted to go someplace where there were vast open spaces and not a lot of tourists.   Where life, especially in Mongolia, is similar to what it’s been for centuries.”

She stayed in one Mongolian village for a month, teaching English. “It was a fantastic, fabulous experience,” Warmbrunn says with uncharacteristic enthusiasm.   “I taught 11-16 year olds…   By any monetary standards, they lived in abject poverty, but I would never call it a poor country.   Simple, but not poor.   But the hospitality was beyond description.”

Warmbrunn grew up in Claremont, near L.A., but she’d lived and worked in France and Germany. Nonetheless, her parents were totally unprepared for her little journey. “I couldn’t communicate with them for a long time. When I finally got to the capital of Mongolia, and walked into the U.S. Embassy, I found out that I was on the State Department Watch-List.   My father had totally flipped.”   An international phone call later, and all was well. Back on the road, she wore the same clothes for four months, enjoyed a real shower about every six weeks. By the time she got to Saigon, she was ready to move on with her life, but had no specific plans.

She called Elias, as promised, and he said, ‘Be in Vladivostok in April; we’re going back.” So Warmbrunn worked on translation and interpretation of a Gorky Theatre production of Tennessee Williams’ “Summer and Smoke”, which Elias directed, in Russian. That presentation, the hit of the 1994 season, led to a reciprocal invitation to the Gorky Theatre to come to the U.S.

Twenty-four members of the company arrive in San Diego May 7.   First, they will spend 3-4 days presenting master classes at SDSU. Elias’ long-time collaborator (in San Diego and Vladivostok), scenic designer/SDSU professor Beeb Salzer, arranged for the university to co-host the visit.   The trip was scheduled to tie in with the Blue Waters Festival, San Diego’s first international arts extravaganza, which was scheduled for May, but then canceled.

The Gorky production, opening May 11 at SDSU’s Don Powell Theatre, is Anton Chekhov’s “Ivanov”. The first of the Russian master’s full-length plays, “Ivanov” became, in 1889, the first triumph of the acclaimed short story writer’s budding theatrical career.   It bears the marks of an early work, but has elements of his later masterpieces. The story centers on one of Chekhov’s 19th century ‘superfluous men’ of the intelligentsia, mired in false and disillusioned romance and realism. What is most noteworthy is the playwright’s portrayal of an obviously immoral man as a sympathetic, confused character, while his worthy denouncer is depicted as a self-righteous prig.

The lead actors also starred in Elias’ Russian production of “Summer and Smoke”. According to Elias, “(Alexander) Sasha Slavsky is a terrifically accomplished actor… a magnetic, exciting performer with great intelligence…   Svetlana Salakhudinova is charismatic, incredibly responsive… very beautiful…”

Warmbrunn, who was hired as Elias’ assistant, has been living in San Diego, working on the translation, which she will read live to the audience via free earphones. “I try to have slightly different tones for different characters, but I’m not acting.   I’m trying to be unobtrusive.   Like ‘audio subtitles.’   If it’s done right, people will say, ‘For the first ten minutes, I thought it was weird. Then I thought I understood Russian.”  

Warmbrunn suggests that audience members turn down the volume “so I sound like a whisper. Then they can hear the actors, and get all the emotion and intonation from them… Seeing Chekhov done in Russian, by Russians, is a real slice of Russian life. The Russian soul gets talked about in Russia a lot.   And it is still today what it was when Chekhov was writing.”

©1995 Patté Productions Inc.