WITH THE DEMISE of the hasty coup perpetrated by the die-hard old-line Communist Party, a fresh voice of freedom is ringing through the Soviet Union and beyond.
This new voice of liberation speaks through the artistry of the Theatre Buff company from Leningrad, which has returned to the Theatre Project for the American premiere of its new show, "Masquerade," a one-man production featuring actor-clown-musician Gennady Vetrov.
"The wind of perestroika sent me here," said the dark-haired Vetrov in pleasant but halting English during a break in a %J grueling rehearsal schedule. "It broke a barrier between our two countries and swept away everything created for the past 73 years. It is a wind of change and future hope."
Even the name of his city has been swept away. Vetrov will return home to St. Petersburg, following a Russian vote to restore that historic name to Leningrad.
But there is a down side to the winds of change. "Under the new government, the arts will be subsidized less and less," said Vetrov.
The versatile actor was accompanied by Buff founder and director Isaak Shtokbant. Both men were being aided in English translation by Cheryl Draves, an associate of the Center of Russian Language and Culture at Friends School.
"The bigger groups -- the ballet, symphony, Moscow Art Theatre, etc. -- will still need subsidies, but it will not be like before," said Shtokbant, founder of Theatre Buff and the Theater Institute in Leningrad, where he is the producer and director of three working companies.
"Theatre Buff could have applied for government subsidy but we declined in order to be completely independent and free," he said. "The people in charge of awarding subsidies and support ** can putrestrictions on your concept." Smiling wryly he added, "Those who give money often demand too high a price and the purity of the work is often diminished. This is true everywhere."
Baltimore audiences may remember Vetrov as the joyful, unrestrained Master of Ceremonies in Buff's "Ah, Cabaret" last season. His new solo presentation opens tonight at 8 p.m. and continues through Sept. 29.
"Masquerade," which uses many masks, tells a number of funny and poignant stories. In this piece as in other Buff works there is strong interaction with the audience.
Portraying the traditional Russian comic-clown, Petrushka, Vetrov takes on many guises to perform in the traditional, improvisational cabaret style so popular in the Soviet Union during the 19th century.
Songs, skits and original music by Igor Balakirev highlight the comedy scenes, which also take good-natured potshots at the present Soviet leadership and make sly references to the "coup flu," the alleged illnesses that kept some Soviet leaders out of the action during last month's brief ouster of President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
"Through the main role of the clown, the rich full emotions of the Russian soul -- happiness, suffering, loneliness -- are conveyed," said Vetrov, who is a popular TV and stage actor in Leningrad and graduate of the Theatre Institute. "I have chosen to portray the clown because this character has the freedom to say thing others cannot. Through emotion and comedy the clown can communicate from the heart."
On stage the actor is supported by a dresser and a musician. His central figure is a blundering fireman who is on an exchange program with the Glen Burnie Fire Department. He then segues into a series of avant-garde characters who represent all aspects of the human soul.
"We came here at a time that is very difficult for our country," noted Vetrov. He left the Soviet Union for Baltimore on Aug. 25, a week after the brief coup.
"Now in Moscow, parliamentary members are deciding the fate of our country, how the Russian people will live in the future," he said. "Part of our new work covers this perspective and you will see the wonderful Russian soul shining through. The text is English but most of the songs are in Russian," he added.
"Those in the coup wanted to put the Russian people back in cages," said Vetrov. "But the Russian soul cannot be put into a cage."
"Theater is a form through which people can speak of freedom," interjected Shtokbant. "With more freedom now we will be able to say openly what we think."
Following the Theatre Project engagement, Theatre Buff will perform at the University of Tennessee and at the Circuit Playhouse in Memphis, Tenn.
Performances are 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. through Sept. 29. For reservations and ticket information call the Theatre Project box office at 752-8558.