She's a brat on stage, a help off

Critic's Corner

`Arbor' actress pulls double duty as Russian authority

Critic's Corner// Theater

September 07, 2006|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun theater critic

Dina Epshteyn is leading two very different lives. And they take place only blocks apart.

At the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre, Epshteyn is portraying a bratty, spoiled prep school student in the play Hope's Arbor. Meanwhile, at Center Stage, she is serving as a resident Russian authority for the season-opening production of Chekhov's The Three Sisters.

Both duties sprang from a stint last season as a Center Stage intern. In the spring, when she learned the theater would produce the Chekhov play, Epshteyn, who was born in Minsk, Belarus, offered to bring in a Russian-language copy that belongs to her grandmother.

Center Stage artistic director Irene Lewis -- who is directing The Three Sisters, which begins performances Sept. 15 -- and resident dramaturg Gavin Witt took her up on her offer. Now Epshteyn is not only the production's associate dramaturg, she's also this season's dramaturgy fellow.

The Spotlighters gig also came about last spring when another Center Stage intern, Jayme Kilburn, mentioned that she would be directing a Baltimore Playwrights Festival production, Rich Espey's Hope's Arbor, and she was having trouble casting it.

"I said, half joking, `Why don't you cast me in it?'" Epshteyn recalls. So, she ended up portraying the protagonist's arch enemy, a character so nasty, Epshteyn says, her own family has been "shocked ... because I'm not really like that. They're like, `Wow, you were really mean.'"

Epshteyn, 23, moved to Baltimore with her family in 1990. She didn't know English when she entered first grade at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School. But she learned quickly and rejected her native Russian in the process. Years later, however, as a student at Montreal's McGill University, she enrolled in a class called Russian for Heritage Speakers.

When she returned home to Reisterstown, she says, "My family was astonished at how much better my Russian was." She also credits the McGill course with making it possible for her to perform her dramaturgical tasks on The Three Sisters, tasks that have included comparing the theater's translation (by Paul Schmidt) with the original Russian; assisting with the pronunciation of names and questions about the culture; and helping select incidental music.

A typical question, she explains, is what would be on the breakfast table in Act I? Because the sisters are upper class, she says, "They wouldn't be eating herring and black bread like you would normally associate with Russians." Instead, her list includes "pancakes, sprat sandwiches [like sardines], a lot of little baked goods, jam, tea, cheese, fruits."

This weekend, Epshteyn will return to the Spotlighters' stage, where Hope's Arbor has been extended for three more performances. After that, she'd love to do more community theater but doubts she'll have time.

The only performing she expects to do will be leading the occasional post-show discussion at Center Stage. But if an audience member poses a question in Russian, rest assured that Epshteyn will be poised to answer it.

j.wynn.rousuck@baltsun.com

"Hope's Arbor" continues through Sunday at the Spotlighters, 817 St. Paul St. Tickets are $15. Call 410-752-1225 or visit spotlighters.org. "The Three Sisters" runs Sept. 15-Oct. 29 at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. Tickets are $10-$60. Call 410-332-0033 or visit centerstage.org.

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