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In The U.S. Heartland, Drama With A Different Flavor

Twenty years ago, a young Ukrainian named Natasha Williams arrived in the upper-crust horse country of Lexington, Ky., and opened an oddball cafe that specialized in Turkish coffee.

Born Natasha Isakova of a secular Jewish family, Williams — a translator and onetime philosophy student — had also been an actor during her university years. She'd even run her own theater in Kiev, before marrying an American and moving to the Bluegrass State. And though she's spent two decades running that cafe and boutique in Lexington, she decided recently to go back to her theatrical roots.

Williams' new theater, The Balagula, takes its name from a Yiddish word meaning a person who drives a cart. The writer Sholem Aleichem, she explains, used it as a sort of trade name.

"The idea," Williams says, is that with his stories Aleichem "drives a cart between different worlds." So Aleichem called himself "God's Balagula" — the man who strives to connect the multiple realities that make up our fractured lives.

Tangled Stories, And A Stripped-Down Style

Williams says her Balagula likewise aims to tell stories about the contradictory nature of human reality. Last year she directed The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh, a play that revolves around a novelist accused of abusing children in a future police state.

Williams takes a minimalist approach to stage props and scenery, drawing on the Russian master Konstantin Stanislavsky's preference for a stageless room over a beautiful theater. Too much of today's theater, she says, opts for spectacle over art.

To make art on her small restaurant stage, Williams insists on Stanislavsky's so-called "natural acting."

"Make-believe is not in the props, it's not in the scenery, it's not in the music," she argues. "Make-believe that is believable is in what actors do," she says. "This is acting that is based and rooted in human psychology, and focused on the actors rather than on the spectacle."

This spring, Williams directed Some Things You Need to Know Before the World Ends, a piece about the Illuminati and other conspiracies.

In the play, the Rev. Eddy and his monkish assistant, Brother Lawrence, are apparently the last two survivors of a global holocaust. The disaster has left the world drenched in poisonous gas, with Brother Lawrence suffering visions. Williams took the show — often played for Christian-fundamentalist slapstick — well beyond that territory.

Williams' company spends months on rehearsals for pieces that usually only run for three weekends. London-trained actor and playwright David Richmond says Williams' approach sets her apart from other directors.

"Natasha has a phrase: 'Ultimately if we do this right, the character will tell you how to behave,'" he says. "That's a process different from any I've ever encountered."

For Williams, all of these strategies for training an actor, and mounting real theater, depend upon a spiral of deaths:

"The idea is that everybody dies," she says. "The playwright has to die in the director. And then actors have to die in the play because they have to let go their ego to create a world that is a world of its own. And then of course [the] play goes into [the] audience's mind, and everyone understands it their own way.

"So, you know, it's a food chain. It's a theatrical food chain."

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Frank Browning
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