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Irkutsk. Day 14

Catching an 18th-century Italian comedy on the road from Kamchatka. I KEEP sounding out ``doughbray ootrah'' to Soviet people and getting back ``doughbree deeyehn.'' Turns out it's after 12. I've been saying, ``Good morning.'' They've been saying, ``Good afternoon.''

I slowly learn English equivalents for the Cyrillic alphabet. But, even after I decipher the letters in a word, it is still in Russian. Then -- Eureka! -- a familiar name like Tchaikovsky will emerge.

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Or Goldoni, the 18th-century Italian playwright, whose name in Russian begins with an upside-down ``L'' -- and whose ``The Mistress of the Inn'' is performed in Russian here tonight. Somehow we didn't expect a masterpiece of what history calls bourgeois comedy for our first play in the homeland of communism. But then we didn't expect to catch a troupe on tour from Kamchatka, which is practically in Alaska. Or to be welcomed backstage by the director and leading man, who kiss Joan's hand and say, ``We are neighbors!'' Or to discover their repertoire includes plays by such Western dramatists as Edward Albee and Harold Pinter.

Of course, Albee's and Pinter's plays don't mean to say that everything is ducky in the modern capitalist world. And, as for Goldoni, he lets the players, in their wigs and breeches, have plenty of fun at the expense of characters like a played-out nobleman, a new-rich upstart, and a misogynist. The sparkling innkeeper gives her hand to the nearest thing to a working man in the play.

Getting seats to this show is a useful lesson. It teaches us to rush to the service bureau in each hotel to see what is going on besides group events.

I say rush, because current performances are often sold out. Whenever we arrive at a theater, someone asks if we have tickets to spare.

As for the daytime before tonight's show: A beautiful bus trip to Lake Baikal (20 percent of the world's fresh water), where I get movie shots to prove Joan washed her face in its supposedly rejuvenating waters. A stop at a 300-year-old village with typical wooden houses having decorated window frames, neat stacks of wood, and a TV antenna here and there. A Russian visitor offers her camera and asks me to take her picture in front of the small Christian church, one of the few on our route that still function as churches.

I see a red star beside the door of some village houses. I ask our Soviet guide what it means. It means the family lost someone in the Great Patriotic War (World War II) ``and should be given every consideration.''

Roderick Nordell is the Monitor's feature editor. Tomorrow he finds movie trivia intruding on Ivan the Terrible.

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