Role Playing: Janet Ulrich Brooks on nailing the style of a wily Russian in ‘A Walk in the Woods’
Portraying an experienced arms negotiator during the 1980s missile crisis for TimeLine, Brooks manages to be sly, funny and serious — in precisely accented English she learned from an interview with a Russian opera star.
By Lawrence B. Johnson
Could this exuberant woman bouncing down the stairs at TimeLine Theatre, greeting me with an easy Midwestern openness, be the sly Russian arms negotiator I’d seen a few nights before in Lee Blessing’s “A Walk in the Woods”?
The answer, comrades, is Da.
Onstage at Theatre Wit, where TimeLine is producing “A Walk in the Woods,” Janet Ulrich Brooks is transformed into Blessing’s fictional version of the Russian negotiator Yuli Kvitsinsky, who in the early 1980s sought with his American counterpart Paul Nitze to draw the two countries back from the brink of nuclear catastrophe.
Blessing wrote both parts for men, though his American character John Honeyman has sometimes been played by a woman. Never had a woman portrayed the Russian.
Brooks, who turns in an utterly beguiling performance, admits that when director Nick Bowling first suggested the idea, she wasn’t sure she wanted to be that trail-blazer.
“I felt that maybe it was dated, another story about two middle-aged white men running things,” she recalled. “But as I read it thinking of a woman in that role, the play opened up to me in a fresh way. It made me think of all the people who are trying to have these conversations, trying to negotiate and not just across gender differences but cultural and racial differences that pit people against each other.”
At the same time, Brooks said, she got past her concern that “A Walk in the Woods,” which had its premiere in 1988, might be as old-hat as the cold war.
“We may be in more danger of nuclear destruction now than we were then,” she said. “Then, there were only two countries that had these weapons, and they were talking to each other. Now, we have rogue nations, rogue people. You just don’t know what’s going to happen. In that light, the play becomes more relevant and resonant.”
Lee Blessing has said he wrote the Russian as the older character – the opposite was the historical case – and made him funnier and more charming than his U.S. counterpart so that American audiences would actually listen to his ideas. Brooks imbues the worldly, droll negotiator with irresistible style, all within a sharply defined seriousness.
“People’s expectation when you put a man and woman on stage together is that they should get together, that (in a husky, meaningful tone) they should fall in love. Nick started by calling this a love story. David (Parkes, who plays the impetuous, super-serious American) and I agreed it was a story about trust, about really coming to know one another.
“The fact that the character is a woman does allow me to use female tactics maybe, but only as tactics. It’s not so much a flirtation. I tell him, ‘We’re here to talk, man to man.’ I want to set that boundary right there. It’s not about you overpowering me because I am a woman. We’re going to have this conversation on an eye-to-eye level.”
Still, there is one startling moment when her character, Anya Botvinnik, slides across a bench to within inches of Honeyman. The move is inescapably charged with sexual tension.
“I don’t intentionally do it with a sexual overtone,” said Brooks. “I do it to throw him off-guard. And pretty quickly, I move away and apologize. There is sexual tension in it, but it’s also the European thing. You know Americans, we like our dance space (laughing). Europeans are up close talking to you, holding onto your arm. I actually tried to embrace as much of the Russian culture as I could.”
To say nothing of a Russian accent. Whenever Brooks quotes a line, or even a fragment of a line, from her character, she drops instinctively into Anya’s crisp accent. The actor worked hard with her coach, Tanera Marshall, to get a consistent accent and now she can’t even think, much less speak, her lines without shifting into Anya’s edged English.
As a model to strive toward, Marshall gave Brooks an MP3 audio recording of an interview NPR did with the Russian opera star Anna Netrebko, who speaks fluent English but with a lilting accent.
“I listened to the interview over and over and worked on other drills,” said Brooks, who previously had played characters with Serbian and Lithuanian accents. “The trick is finding the music in it, the rhythms. I had to put my mouth in a different shape, almost a pucker. I used to play flute. It’s like a flute embouchure.”
The ultimate praise came about a week into the run, at a post-performance talk-back: “A Russian woman told me the accent was good.”
That line Brooks delivers in plain, self-satisfied English.
- Essay on Paul Nitze at the time of his death. Read it in Slate.