Gennady Vetrov, the frolicsome clown emcee of the Theatre Buffo troupe from Leningrad, bounced into the conference room at the Theatre Project fresh from a rehearsal of "Ah, Cabaret! Ah, Cabaret!"
The show is being performed at the Project by Vetrov and eight other young actor-singer-musicians from the Soviet Union who are making their first visit to America. The roughly 90-minute program embodies the traditional cabaret style entertainment popular in the Soviet Union during the 19th century and features songs, comedy skits, dancing and more.
Accompanied by Isaak Shtockbant, his director and mentor, Vetrov, still wearing his bulbous nose face mask, exchanges quips in Russian with group member and English interpreter Aliki Usubiani.
The small, curvaceous Usubiani trills a pretty sensual blues number in French between the on-stage vaudevillian antics. She was dubbed "a Russian sex bomb" by the Finnish press during a Buffo tour.
Shtockbant is the director and producer of Theatre Buffo and a professor of drama at the Leningrad Theatre Academy. Buffo is the Italian word for clowns. Founded in 1983 by Shtockbant, Theatre Buffo's first clown company was drawn from students graduating that year from the academy. Theatre Buffo Two, now in Baltimore, is made up of students from the class of 1988. This group also took their act to Switzerland last December and January.
"After this appearance we must play at home, too," says super-clown Vetrov.
"There are many people in Leningrad," Vetrov says, laughing. "Our fan club."
Asked how the arts are faring since the advent of glasnost and perestroika back home, Shtockbant replies, "Many years ago in Russia the ideological things were important. Now ideology is not important. Art has become very free. What was not possible to do is now possible. We are not sitting in a cage anymore."
The theatrical company has its own building, which houses two stages. "The first group is performing there now," says Shtockbant, a recipient of the Honored Statesman of Art medal from the Soviet government. Shtockbant also stages traditional and contemporary classics.
"The most important thing is the growth of the actor," explains Shtockbant, "the development of the universal actor who can do anything. The principle is diversification," he says. "The five-year program at the Academy is very diversified -- drama, comedy, classics, music, cabaret, precise body movement -- everything."
"In 19th century Russia the great stage stars, after their traditional performances, would then come to the small cafes and perform," says Vetrov.
"Cabaret came to Russia from France," adds Shtockbant. "And it eventually became absorbed into Russian folklore. Our cabaret now is not the same as in France. In France," he says, "there is too much sex and violence and laxity.
"The main thing with us is our communication with the audience. We are not too strong in language," he laughs. "We are trying to find contact always."
These clowns made their North American premiere at the Knoxville World Festival in August before coming directly here.
"Baltimore crabs,'' says Vetrov, ''a wonderful experience. We have not seen much of Baltimore, but what we have seen is very interesting. Harborplace, Walters Art Gallery -- fantastic!"
"Ah, Cabaret! Ah, Cabaret!" runs Wednesday through Sunday at the Theatre Project. For reservations and ticket information, call 752-8558.