SAN DIEGO — For Sergei Alexandrovich Pavlov, who clowns his way through the Soviet Acrobatic Revue, comedy is no laughing matter.
Pavlov, 31, has never heard of Woody Allen. And yet, the red-haired, freckle-faced clown, who dreams of writing, directing and starring in his own movies, looks and talks like a Soviet version of--who else?--Woody Allen.
Pavlov is the single clown in the Soviet Acrobatic Revue, which makes its American debut tonight at the Old Globe Theatre, with performances through Dec. 17.
He shares the bill with 26 other performers doing 21 acts, including dancing, pole vaulting, wire walking, unicycling, skating, juggling and contortionist tricks.
Pavlov's idols, like Allen's, are silent film stars Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. Like Allen, he loves music, especially the jazz of Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. He describes his obsession with Fred Astaire as an illness: "I got sick with the dance of Fred Astaire."
His trade is pratfalls, but again, like Allen, he speaks of comedy in philosophical terms. Consider the trick in which he comes on stage playing with a ball: The ball falls in his clothes; he pulls his arms and legs into his clothes looking for the ball, and then, having found the ball, can't seem to find the holes to free his arms and legs.
"We are all like a little puppy in a dark room," Pavlov said through interpreter Lana Worth outside the Old Globe as he explained the feeling behind the trick. "It's right here--the exit--but we keep searching everywhere, trying to get out."
Much of his humor has a poignant dimension. In one sketch, he plays a violinist so impassioned by his music that he ends up sawing his violin in half with his bow. And then there's the boss man with the giant stomach who gives one of the circus performers such a difficult time that the performer, exasperated, stabs him. The boss' stomach--a balloon--rapidly deflates.
Pavlov said he was trained by the State Circus and Variety Arts School in Moscow (one of three clown schools in the Soviet Union), to do acrobatic flips and tightrope walking like the other performers in the show.
But Pavlov's heart had been in comedy since he was 16 and helping his father in his job as a film projectionist in his native Ulyanovsk, a city outside Moscow. Once, when Pavlov was just a child, he was selected to be in a movie because of his bright red hair. He didn't want to do the movie then, but he still thinks about the missed opportunity. Now, he wouldn't reject such a chance.
Pavlov started his professional career as what he calls "a carpet clown"--the job of amusing the customers while the circus people move the props to set up for later acts.
He began as a comic juggler and later created a repertoire of sketches. His choice of career surprised his parents--neither of whom where artists (his mother would have preferred that he go into the army, he said, and his father rationalized that "at least he's doing something"). But once Pavlov got what he calls "the clown disease"--a passion for performing--he had no alternative.
"It works out that I can do it. Now I can't imagine doing anything else," he said.
Pavlov eventually left the circus for the better-paying Goskoncert, the agency that rents performers to circuses, schools and public functions. Pavlov was at Goskoncert when Don Hughes, the president of International Attractions (which is presenting the Soviet Acrobatic Revue with the Old Globe), auditioned him and the other performers chosen for the national tour that begins in San Diego.
Hughes said one of the reasons he chose Pavlov was that, although the clown is not, primarily, a mime, he has an uncanny ability to communicate without words. That comment is gratifying to Pavlov, who speaks little English and was worried about the language barrier on his first trip outside the Soviet Union--to Canada--earlier this year.
The language barrier, however, did not turn out to be as much of a problem as the fact that his luggage arrived late in Canada, and he had to amuse an audience for half an hour with the single prop he had carried on board--a concertina.
Still, the show went well and Pavlov learned two valuable lessons from the experience: that he does in fact have, what he calls, "the international language," and that "everything I can't do without I should carry with me."
Pavlov now sees the Canadian trip as being the high point of his career because the differences between Canadian and Soviet audiences gave him a better grip on the universality of his humor; he looks forward to meeting his first United States audience for the same reason.
"I go for the straight contact with the audience, and so I create work differently for different audiences.