A Night at the Opera
A full-house audience at Odesa’s Musical Comedy Theater broke into uproarious laughter on a Sunday evening this summer. Such merriment would hardly be noteworthy in peacetime. Odesa has long been home to a lively tradition of musical comedy. But this performance was different, taking place just a couple of weeks after Russian rockets destroyed parts of the city, severely damaging the Transfiguration Cathedral, the Literary Museum, the House of Scientists, and other cultural and civilian targets. This would hardly seem a time for high spirits in Odesa. Still, Odesans, as has long been the case in this singular port city on the Black Sea, needed a good chortle, no matter what the catastrophe.
The July 30 performance of Train–Odessa Mama had been scheduled as a tribute to the late film and television actress Ruslana Pysanka. The beloved Pysanka had gained a national and international reputation as a cinematographer, actress, and television anchor, including as co-host of the program Official Romance in 2008 with then-comedian Volodymyr Zelensky. She escaped to Germany following the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Her husband remained in Ukraine to care for her ailing mother, who soon died. Pysanka was diagnosed in Germany with a particularly aggressive form of cancer and died in July 2022, at the age of 56. Her ashes and those of her mother were buried in Kyiv’s Baikove Cemetery that August.
Ukraine’s national calamity has eclipsed hundreds of personal tragedies such as that of Pysanka. Her death nonetheless cried out for commemoration and so, this summer, Odesa’s renowned Musical Comedy Theater scheduled legendary actors Oleg Filimonov, Anastasia Borisova, and Viktor Andrienko to bring the rowdy farce by Oleksandr Tarasul, Evgeny Khait, and Viktor Yavnik to Odesa during the company’s summer holidays. The anger and sorrow generated by the Russian bombings gave new meaning to the play’s high jinks, beyond a touching tribute to Pysanka. It became an opportunity to affirm Odesa’s existence through laughter, something Odesans value as much as anyone.
There is nothing sophisticated about Train–Odessa Mama. Its simple story traces the chance meeting of a man and a woman confined to a train compartment on a long journey across Ukraine to Odesa. The man turns out to be a stereotypical Jewish “mama’s boy” who seems incapable of action without his mother’s approval. The woman is a temperamental Ukrainian beauty full of her own formulaic neuroses. More than a plot, their train ride becomes a setup for the broadest of ribald humor, slapstick, and Jewish shtick. This is a train ride with the Marx Brothers rather than Noel Coward.
Filimonov is a well-known Odesan humorist recognized for his film appearances in such movies as Seven Days with a Russian Beauty and This is How it Is Done in Odesa, or Odesans of All Countries Unite! Borisova is an Odesa actor known for playing elegant beauties. Andrienko, a native of Zaporizhzhia, is a character actor and director whose recent movies include a big-budget Ukrainian film of Shalom Aleichem’s Tevye’s Daughters. The play’s writers are equally well known in the world of Odesa comedy. Among other accomplishments, Tarasul wrote several episodes of the Yavnik-directed Russian reality television megahit Naked and Funny, in which ordinary citizens suddenly find themselves in unusual circumstances next to a nude stranger. Writer, poet, satirist, and journalist Khait wrote the popular 1990s comedy television series Gentleman Show, among many successes.
As these credits suggest, all are acclaimed performers steeped in a local Odesa comedic tradition known for zany—and bawdy—stories pushing the limits of decorum. The very mention of Odesa during Soviet times could bring a wry smirk as this style of storytelling entered mainstream Soviet culture, much as Bowery vaudeville acts mocking authority travelled to Hollywood and Osakan comedians became identified throughout Japan with hilarious but déclassé antics. Train–Odessa Mama has traveled worldwide, performed successfully wherever a Russian-speaking club or Jewish community center might be found.
The Odesa Academic Theater of Musical Comedy hosting the performance has kept the flame of a distinct Odesa comedy tradition alive for three-quarters of a century. Founded in post-war Lviv, the theater moved to Odesa in 1953, where its youthful company quickly became a local favorite. The theater gained fans throughout the Soviet Union as it toured widely and performed in film. Its repertoire has ranged from classical operettas to rock operas.
Mykhailo Vodianoy, who joined the company when it moved to Odesa, became a legendary figure known in Soviet times as the “king of operetta.” In addition to acting, he served as the theater’s long-time director. He is perhaps best known for his performances in Fiddler on the Roof, which brought an end to a Soviet ban on the play. Following his death in 1987, the company named a planned new theater (which opened in 1995) in his honor. Train -Odessa Mama extends the theater’s tradition into this time of war.
Wartime tragedy and hardship call out for the comforting embrace of the familiar. In Odesa, with its longstanding mélange of Russian and Jewish culture, belly laughs sooth as much as any tonic. This summer’s audience members returned to the despair of war as soon as they walked home after the curtain came down. But for a few hours, they were able to honor the legacy and memory of the beloved performer Ruslana Pysanka, and honor their own city’s traditions with a rollicking night at a cherished theater. After the horrors of Russian bombardment, they resolutely did so as Ukrainians.
The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.
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About the Author
Blair A. Ruble
Former Wilson Center Vice President for Programs (2014-2017); Director of the Comparative Urban Studies Program/Urban Sustainability Laboratory (1992-2017); Director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies (1989-2012) and Director of the Program on Global Sustainability and Resilience (2012-2014)
The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange. Read more