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AT PANTAGES : KEDROVA TO RETURN IN ‘ZORBA’ ROLE

The first thing Lila Kedrova does is apologize for her English. “My talking is bizarre,” she says, with an uneasy glance at the tape recorder on the restaurant table. “Sometimes it goes smoothly and sometimes it goes wrong. Then, when you write, you must fix it.”

Her pronunciation of many words is unmistakably French, but her accent and her phrasing are Russian. The mix is pleasant and not surprising. Kedrova was born in Leningrad in 1918 but grew up in and near Paris from the age of . . . well, from an early age.

Exact dates and chronology take a back seat to anecdotal reminiscences as she speaks, saying her parents left the Soviet Union in the early ‘30s at one point, then recounting Parisian adventures she says occurred when she was only 8.

Her voice, hoarse at first, becomes clear and takes on a greater range with every sip of coffee; she claps her hands gleefully as she tells of a childhood attempt to run away with Gypsies. There is a lot of the child within this woman--the same child within an older woman that enlivens Kedrova’s portrayal of Madame Hortense in the musical “Zorba.”

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It’s been almost three years since Kedrova and her co-star, Anthony Quinn, appeared here in “Zorba” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. That two-month run, which earned Kedrova a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award, was but one stop in a national tour that reunited Quinn and Kedrova with director Michael Cacoyannis, who had directed the 1965 film “Zorba the Greek,” in which the performers created the parts they now play on stage.

The tour began in Philadelphia in January, 1983. After a swing West, the show settled on Broadway that October for a 10-month run that won Kedrova a Tony and a Drama Desk Award for her Broadway debut performance. And that run was but a respite from the road. The tour continued after New York, finally ending in Phoenix last June.

Now Quinn and Kedrova are on the road again in an “encore national tour” that began in Rochester, came West during the winter through the northern states and opens here Wednesday at the Pantages for a three-week engagement.

The hectic, grueling schedule is a familiar one for Kedrova, who came to it having just played 23 countries after a two-year run in Paris in a revival of Jean Cocteau’s “Les Parents Terribles.”

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But then, Lila Kedrova has always been drawn to a nomadic life.

“It was fantasy of a child,” she says, her large eyes sparkling, her expressive hands tracing the story in the air almost as eloquently as her words. She could see the Gypsy encampment from the train she took every day from her parents’ home outside Paris to the Russian school she attended in the city.

“It was the last station before Paris, and through the window I could see them. A caravan of Gypsies with the skirts, the fire outside, and they would play guitars. Ah! Especially in the evenings when I would go home, it was so amusing to look at. So instead of the school, I jumped from the train and went to see what was there.

“I stayed with them the whole day--very friendly people, wonderful. ‘Eat, eat.’ Extraordinary things; it was fun, fun, fun. And then I took the train home. ‘Oh yes, I was in school,’ ” she says, becoming a little girl again.

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She continued to “go to school” with the Gypsies, performing in their small circus for children, until they had to move. She decided to go with them, but didn’t get far before the police, called by her worried parents, brought her home.

A few years later, at 14, she was on the road again, this time with a troupe of Russian emigre actors--and with her parents’ permission. She has been in the theater ever since, on stages all over the world, including Canada and Australia in productions directed by her husband, Richard Howard.

Kedrova was already a well-established actress in France when Michael Cacoyannis called her in as a last-minute replacement for Simone Signoret, his original choice for Madame Hortense.

“Zorba the Greek” had been on location for two weeks’ filming on Crete, and Signoret had decided she couldn’t do the part.

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She flew to Crete for a screen test, worried that she wouldn’t get the part.

“I lied and said I could speak English,” she recalls. “I can say, ‘How do you do?’ That’s it. Right when I get there they immediately started my makeup and Cacoyannis would tell me the lines to remember. But then I couldn’t remember these lines. Never mind. I said it in French, then some in English, maybe something in Russian. It doesn’t matter. I played the situation. They laughed, they loved it. And Cacoyannis said, ‘Lila, we sign contract right now.’ ”

Kedrova not only got the part, she got an Academy Award. Yet she was never happy with her role in the movie.

“I disliked it so much that I cried,” she says. “I see somebody oldish, ugly, terrible looking, fat, with this terrible hair--and bad acting. I cried the whole night, saying to myself that I think this is my last part whatsoever. Never, never I will do any other movie--maybe not even theater. My career is finished.”

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She was wrong, of course. Her career has been thriving ever since. She’s also reconciled herself to Madame Hortense, at least in the stage version, where she says the character is much more to her liking.

“She is not so sad, I think,” Kedrova explains, “not so ridiculous. She dresses better and to myself there is more to like. Now I like this part. It is more uplifting.”


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