‘Russian Transport’ Reveals Great Lengths to Achieve the American Dream
By Stephanie Harte
Photo Credit: Max Pink, Mark Puchinsky and Reese Madigan (left to right) in rehearsal for Russian Transport. Photo Courtesy of Renaissance Theaterworks.
For actor Mark Puchinsky, Russian Transport by Erika Sheffer hits close to home. Born and raised in Milwaukee by Russian immigrant parents, Puchinsky shares that his mom and dad sacrificed everything to obtain a better life for their children, much like Diana (Elizabeth Ledo) and Misha (Reese Madigan) do in the play.
“If there is something that shines through with my story and my parents it’s that at the end of the day it was always about family,” Puchinsky says.
Renaissance Theaterworks’ upcoming production, Russian Transport, follows immigrants Diana and Misha as they struggle to raise two teenagers, Mira (April Paul) and Alex (Max Pink), in Brooklyn’s Sheepshead Bay. The fall of the Soviet Union and corruption in their homeland fueled the family’s decision to pursue the American Dream.
Elizabeth Ledo, Max Pink and April Paul (left to right). Photo courtesy of Renaissance Theaterworks.
However, a disruption from the family’s everyday life ensues when Diana’s mysterious younger brother Boris (Puchinsky) arrives from Russia—secretly bringing a human trafficking business with him.
Laura Gordon, who is directing the piece, shares that some of the story’s themes are so intense and haunting that her and the cast have trouble separating themselves from the project after rehearsals. Described by Sheffer as a family comedy/drama/crime story/ thriller, Russian Transport is full of unpredictable twists and turns.
“You can’t help but be a little fractured by it,” Ledo adds. “You can’t unthink or forget what is happening to some of these people. It’s so overwhelming in a good way and also in a way that’s destroying my health.”
Renaissance Theaterworks has partnered with local nonprofits Exploit No More, Benedict Center and LOTUS Legal Clinic to help spark conversations on the play’s human trafficking theme. Although Russian Transport is set in New York, human trafficking is a serious issue in Milwaukee as well. Our city has been referred to as “the Harvard of pimp school,” consistently ranking amongst the worst in the country when it comes to the number of kids recovered during human trafficking stings, according to the FBI. In 2015 Milwaukee tied with Las Vegas for the third worst city for human trafficking, behind Denver and Detroit.
“One of the things that has always struck me (about human trafficking) is that it happens in plain sight,” Puchinsky says. “All these people get moved around and stolen from the world that they know and then they disappear.”
Gordon admits that when the Renaissance Theaterworks staff first approached her about directing Russian Transport, she didn’t know how she wanted to tell this story.
Director Laura Gordon reviews a scene between Elizabeth Ledo and Max Pink. Photo Courtesy of Renaissance Theaterworks.
“It’s hard to say I have an answer and a way that I want to talk about trafficking of women,” Gordon shares. “I couldn’t wrap my brain around that, but when I was able to take a look at the family and see that these are just people that are trying to survive in the midst of a huge moral and ethical dilemma…that made me really excited.”
During the run of the show, Renaissance Theaterworks will host a care drive to benefit Exploit No More. Patrons are encouraged to bring care items such as toothbrushes, toothpaste, shampoo, and sweatshirts to the Broadway Theatre lobby for recovering human trafficking victims. The lobby will also feature art pieces from the Lotus Legal Clinic’s Untold Stories Project. Through the Untold Stories Project, Milwaukee area high school students interpret powerful messages from trafficking survivors into art.
Russian Transport, presented by Renaissance Theaterworks, runs Jan. 19 - Feb. 11 at the Broadway Theatre Center Studio Theatre. For tickets call the box office at 414-291-7800 or visit r-t-w.com.