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Volok and Lazarev, friends from Russia, team in Hollywood

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By Cynthia Citron

Cynthia Citron

WEST HOLLYWOOD, California – “A really good actor knows something the writer doesn’t know,” Ilia Volok says.  “The actor brings his life –the life of a human spirit — to the stage, and a great actor elevates it.”

Ukrainian-born actor Volok cites Kevin Kline as one of the greats.  “He delivers with passion,” he says, whereas Robin Williams is “a great comedian, but he only plays happy, sad, or sentimental.”

Volok, who got his training at the Moscow Art Theater School, was steeped in the acting methods of Stanislavski and of Michael Chekhov, the nephew of Anton, whose forte was “comic eccentricism.”

“Comic eccentricism” as a category was supplied by director Eugene Lazarev, who joined us for our interview at a Coffee Bean.

Lazarev and Volok, friends in Russia, have teamed up for their adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s short story Diary of a Madman, which opens March 16 at the Actors Circle Theater in Hollywood.  Volok plays the madman in this 80-minute solo performance, and Lazarev directs it.

 Diary of a Madman, Lazarev explains, is a story of “mystical realism.”  It concerns a low-level clerk who falls in love with a high society lady.  “He is a low-life and she is a queen,” he says.

The story, written as a monologue, is presented as random pages of a diary, jumping from one day to another and chronicling the clerk’s descent into madness.

“The role is a big challenge for any actor,” Volok says.  “It follows every event of Poprishchin’s (the clerk’s) life, through illusions of grandeur, mania, schizophrenia—so many transformations.”

“It’s such a rich opportunity for the actor and the director,” Lazarev adds.  “It has transformations in pace, style, Chekhovian nuances, psychological depth.  It demonstrates the maturity of an actor’s talents, his growth in acting style.”

“I love rich material,” Volok says.  “It’s great to get your hands on such material, there are so many different colors you can bring to it.  It’s a great way to grow.

“I love heightened reality,” he continues, “and Gogol is a master of that.  He gives the actor an edge and your imagination just starts. It’s hard to compare films or TV with that.

“I make a living in Hollywood” — Volok has appeared in more than 100 films and television programs, including 37 appearances as Karpov on General Hospital — “but I don’t get close to playing something of this caliber in films or TV.”

“Of course there are no residuals in theater,” he laughs.  “It’s just your craft as an actor.”

Volok, who was born in Kiev, Ukraine, was originally a professional athlete  (the Soviet team in which he participated won third place in a world championship rowing competition in Italy.)  But his next competition was against 200 other students for one cherished opening at the Moscow Art Theater School.  His successful audition won him the slot and, after graduation, offers to work with some of the top theaters in Russia.

Instead, he chose to come to America to “make it as an actor.”

He didn’t speak a word of English.

Earlier, while still in Russia, at a time when perestroika had opened the country to cultural exchanges, he met an actress from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.  They played together in Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull—he in Russian and she in English.  They married, and when she returned to America, he came with her.  This was in 1990

Acting jobs in Hollywood did not come readily to an actor who doesn’t speak English, so Volok started making sandwiches at a shop at Sunset and Fairfax. But he went to school to take English as a Second Language classes and gradually began to win small parts in student films at UCLA, USC, and AFI.

He also studied at the Actors Studio in Hollywood and became a lifetime member in 1999.  (He became a member of SAG in 1993.)

Eventually, he became proficient enough in English to co-write and star in his own two-man play (with David Laird Scott), Fakov in America aka The Russians Are Here. The production, a “silly madcap comedy,” got good reviews when it ran at the Promenade Playhouse in Santa Monica in 2004 and again in 2008.

Recent movie credits include Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Mission Impossible — Ghost Protocol, Water for Elephants and Abduction.

He also speaks with pride of having played the brewmeister in Ferdinand!, the absurdist comedy about Soviet-era reality by the late playwright and former Czech president Vaclav Havel.  The play was produced at the Promenade Playhouse in 2010 and again by the Coeurage Theatre Company in 2011.

Eugene Lazarev, on the other hand, stayed in Moscow for much of his 50-year career as an actor, director, and teacher.  A 1959 graduate of the Moscow Art Theater School, he has taken his accomplishments around the world: directing Hamlet in Moscow, Norway, Mexico, the United States, South Korea, Germany, and elsewhere; teaching at the Moscow Art Theater’s Stanislavski Summer School in Cambridge, Massachusetts; and playing Stanley Kowalski in the Russian adaptation of Streetcar Named Desire for eight years and 800 performances in Moscow.  In recognition of his career achievements, he was named People’s Artist of Russia.

He tells of directing Princess Martha Louise of Norway in Chekhov’s one-act farce A Marriage Proposal, which was attended by the princess’ parents, King Harald and Queen Sonja.

“The princess is a very talented actress,” Lazarev says, adding, “She milked her baby son during intermission.”

He also recalls a near-disaster that took place in Norway.  “I was directing [Chekhov’s] The Bear with a Nobel Prize-winner in medicine playing the lead.  Suddenly, at a climactic moment, he froze.  He was supposed to say, emphatically, “Well then, I’m staying!”  Instead, he said, “Well then, I’m leaving!” and began wandering aimlessly around the stage.

The prompter, unfortunately, spoke a Norwegian dialect that nobody understood, and she began calling on Lazarev for help.

Finally, the actor came out of his trance and carried on, earning a standing ovation from the 600 spectators in the audience and a thumb’s up from the director of the festival.

Life is less hectic for Lazarev these days.  While much of his family remains in Russia (and his actor son Nikolai plays Hamlet in Moscow), he lives relatively quietly in Hollywood with his wife, Anna Obrucheva, a former actress with Moscow’s Children’s Central Theater, and teaches film directing and acting as an adjunct professor at the USC cinema school.

Volok, now divorced, has lived with his partner, a casting director for Warner Brothers and TNT, for the past eight years.  He will soon be seen playing the president of Russia in GI Joe: Retaliation with Bruce Willis and Dwayne Johnson (The Rock), scheduled for release this June.

Diary of a Madman, presented by Coeurage Theatre Company and A Perfect World Productions. Opens March 16. Plays Fri-Sat at 8 pm, Sun at 7 pm. Through March 31. Tickets: $20. Actors Circle Theatre, 7313 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. 310-945-6980. www.coeurage.org.

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Citron is Los Angeles bureau chief for San Diego Jewish World. She may be contacted at [email protected]

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