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Russian Evolution

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Cal State Fullerton course catalog calls it Theatre 463: Acting III. It’s about learning to play the classics--Ibsen, Chekhov, Shakespeare.

Maybe they should rename it “From Russia, with tough love.” With Svetlana Efremova as their teacher, the dozen seniors in the course are learning, to their delight and occasional discomfort, that in the theater there is no gain without some pain.

Last week, the agenda was a single scene from Chekhov’s “The Sea Gull,” in which an aging stage diva, Arkadina, makes a last-ditch attempt to dissuade her lover from dumping her for a much younger woman.

It was quite a mountain for a 21-year-old actress to climb. Sarah Orr, tall and pink complected, is a novice, not a diva, and never in her young life has she known what it is to fight madly to hang on to someone she desperately needs. In her first tentative, passive take on Arkadina, she was clearly in over her red head. Efremova (pronounced “e-FREYM-ova”) was going to have to push to get this student up the slope. And she was prepared to do just that.

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“In Russia, metaphorically speaking, they used the whip,” the stylish Efremova says a while later in the cubbyhole office she shares with a dance teacher. She speaks in a charming accent and with animation and passion that show none of the effects of middle-of-the-night awakenings to soothe her 3-month-old firstborn.

Now in her second year as an associate professor at Cal State Fullerton, Efremova spares the whip but not the prod as she translates for gentler American sensibilities the sometimes harsh methods she was schooled in some 20 years ago at the Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) Academy of Theatre.

She grew up in the Siberian capital Novosibirsk, the daughter of a member of the Soviet “technical intelligentsia,” an engineer who worked on weapons.

She studied intensively to be a concert pianist. Then, when she was 15, a Russian star, Alisa Freindlikh, came to town with a traveling repertory company. Efremova watched her, and everything changed. Within a year, having surmounted 250-1 odds during auditions, she was enrolled at the Academy. There she endured eight-hour acting classes while learning the famous method of Konstantin Stanislavski--who starred in the original productions of Chekhov’s plays--from a teacher who had been taught by Stanislavski himself.

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The four years of rigor paid off. Efremova says she graduated to a privileged life as a member of the Leningrad State Theatre: a private dressing room, her own dresser and makeup artist, two months paid vacation. It was a luxury--the only drawback being that, under the Soviet system her pay as a leading actress doing 35 shows a month was no better than what the understudies were making.

Gorbachev and glasnost arrived. In 1990, Efremova’s company got to tour the United States, performing and giving workshops. Soon after, she got an offer to teach at Muskingum College in Ohio. She was free to go--and with signs that the Communist old guard was going to fight to overturn Gorbachev’s policy of “openness,” she went.

“If you taste freedom--I start liking it. I thought if Communism will win, I don’t want to be there.”

In Ohio she met and married an American actor, Patrick Reed. Next she enrolled at the Yale School of Drama. She relished her first encounters with edgy American plays by the likes of David Mamet and Sam Shepard--modern American works having been banned in the Soviet Union. Her biggest thrill, after extensive Shakespearean acting in Russian, was getting to play Ophelia, Desdemona and Cordelia in the original English.

Two years ago she and her husband moved to Southern California, seeking the film and TV roles an actor needs to make a decent living. They didn’t materialize, but Efremova made a connection at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, where she debuted last year in “Tartuffe.” She returned in January in the role of a sexy, languorous house cat in a tight-fitting furry body suit in Jose Rivera’s “References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot.” Efremova says that her rounding belly--she was 5 1/2 months pregnant with baby Veronica when the show ended--made her feel even more feminine and feline. Another role at South Coast awaits, starting Oct. 31, as an English noblewoman in a 19th century period piece, “The Countess.”

This week, teaching by example, Efremova will play the turbulent sister, Masha, in Chekhov’s “The Three Sisters,” leading a student cast in a Cal State Fullerton theater department production. She has introduced some Russian songs and dances into the show, and taught cast members the proper way to drink vodka: not by sips, but with a big puff of breath to gird oneself, followed by a single, bottoms-up gulp.

Efremova says she will have to brace herself a bit for the role, which she will play through Sunday; another actress takes over after that because Efremova will have begun rehearsals for “The Countess.”

“I’ll be very nervous because they will see onstage what I teach. The hardest audience is the students, people who know you and know what you stand for.”

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Working with her charges in the stark, black box acting studio where she presides over Theatre 463, Efremova leaves no doubt where she stands. She is calling things as she sees them--not caustically, but with more directness than her students say they are used to from their American teachers.

“Sarah, you’re so empty. Do you feel it?”

“Scott, sweetheart, what’s going on? I don’t see the need from you at all. . . . It’s wrong"--this to the actor playing Trigorin, the lover who is pleading with Arkadina to let him go.

Efremova wants passion, large emotion, torrents of it. This is something she thinks does not come easily to Americans.

“If you ask people here how you are, they say ‘Fine.’ They never reveal true feelings. Russians love to suffer. That’s what Chekhov’s plays are about. Americans try to have fun instead of suffer. So when they experience pain, they try not to reveal it.”

Along with the criticism comes encouragement and clear, specific, concrete suggestions on how to do better. This Russian tough love is cushioned with tenderness and a palpable desire to see the students succeed, to see the scene done justice.

‘She Kicks Your [Rear], but in Such a Good Way’

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Orr quickly and effectively picks up on Efremova’s instruction to use props for wordless communication, tossing clothes violently into a trunk as she listens to Scott Johnson as Trigorin tell her how he has found true love at last with another woman. Orr tries falling to her knees and grabbing his legs to stop him from leaving.

Better, Efremova says, but not enough.

“As desperate people we do absolutely crazy things. Don’t you know it from your experience? That’s when people can do brave things. She goes for it like an animal,” the professor says, swiping a clawed right hand through the air for emphasis.

“I see, Sarah, you’re capable, so go for it. What are you afraid of?”

The young actress collapses in place like a rag doll from frustration, body doubled over, hands clasping ankles.

“I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m scared because I’ve never done it,” Orr says. If this were happening to her in real life, she confesses--and nothing like it ever has--she doubts she would wage the kind of desperate, all-out gambit to keep her man that Efremova wants. If she tries to play those emotions, she says, “I’m afraid that everything will splatter all over the wall.”

“That’s good. Go for it,” Efremova quickly responds. She pauses, then makes another suggestion: “Do me one little favor. Can you throw him on the couch?” Sarah’s classmates let out an approving chorus of “Yeah!” Within moments, she is erupting with all the urgency of a woman scorned--straddling her lover on the couch, tearing at his tie, undoing his belt, seizing his head in her hands, stroking him for dear life and attacking him with fierce kisses.

“More, Sarah! Overact, Sarah! Bigger!” cries the teacher. When the scene ends, Efremova leaps from her seat with a loud clap of her hands, like a football coach lunging joyfully from the sidelines after a big touchdown.

“You’re almost there,” she says as the two actors embrace and kiss and the class applauds.

With the session over, Orr pauses before leaving: “I just have to give you a big hug, Svetlana.”

“She kicks your [rear], but in such a good way,” Orr tells an observer. “You grow five times as fast.”

“They cry a lot, but later they all understand it,” Efremova says afterward. “They don’t see it as ‘Ooh, she’s so mean.’ They understand the love is not always soft. Love can be very strong and passionate, but it is still love.”

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“The Three Sisters,” Arena Theatre in the Performing Arts building at Cal State Fullerton, 800 State College Blvd. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 6:30 p.m. $6-$8. Through Oct. 15. (714) 278-3371.


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