``Wait a minute, I'm coming.'' Yuri Lyubimov extricates himself from behind the director's desk and walks slowly to the stage. The Taganka Theater actors freeze. He wants to discuss something with Nikolai Gubenko, the theater's director and the star of the play under rehearsal.
Mr. Lyubimov sits down on the throne occupied moments ago by Mr. Gubenko. Gubenko drops dramatically to his knees in front of him. It's not clear whether the gesture is one of admiration or irritation.
After five years' exile Lyubimov is back at the Taganka, directing rehearsals of the play that led to his break with the Soviet Union - Alexander Pushkin's ``Boris Godunov.''
His visit to Moscow is brief and unofficial. The authorities are ``closing their eyes'' to the rehearsals, says a longtime Taganka associate.
``Boris Godunov'' was written in 1825 and describes events at the turn of the 17th century. Lyubimov has made it a play about Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.
As an actor recites a list of executed nobles, Lyubimov calls out the names of writers killed by Stalin - ``[Isaak] Babel, [Osip] Mandelstam.''
``You are cynical and calm,'' he tells the actor playing the role of the false Dmitri, the main villain in Lyubimov's interpretation of the play. ``You are planning the Great Terror.''
In 1964 Lyubimov founded the Taganka, which quickly became known for its avant-garde productions and its epic fights with the Soviet leadership.
``We have always stated our position clearly and honestly,'' he tells the cast during rehearsals. ``And usually got into trouble for it.''
In 1983 during a visit to the West, he decided not to return and in March 1984 was stripped of his citizenship.
In 1987 he signed an 'emigr'e open letter expressing skepticism about the reforms of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
Soon afterward the Moscow weekly ``Literaturnaya Gazeta'' noted with satisfaction that his latest stage production in West Germany had been a disastrous flop.
It was widely rumored that he would never return: Even if the leadership relented, he would not.
Six week ago he met the Taganka troupe during a Spanish tour, and it was announced that he would be coming back for a short visit.
Lyubimov is an intrusive director. ``Boris Godunov'' is written in blank verse. Lyubimov sits in the dark counting off the syllables on his fingers. When an actor loses the rhythm, he turns onhis desk light. This is the signal for the play to stop. He repeatedly corrects one actor's delivery. He carefully modulates one of Gubenko's hand gestures.
``Rotate the hand just slightly,'' he tells Gubenko, making him repeat the gesture until he is satisfied.
An onlooker who worked with the theater for years says the troupe thrives on this style of direction. ``They're very, very talented people, but once they're off stage, it's like a kindergarten.''
His actors nonetheless treat him with an edge of impatience, like a slightly doddering grandfather (he is 70).
The edge is particularly noticeable in his relations with Gubenko, his pupil but now also an established film director.
When Lyubimov fails to catch an onstage comment, Gubenko repeats it with exaggerated clarity and slowness.
Later Lyubimov rambles through a comment, his hand on the switch of his desk light. Gubenko, at that point sitting next to him, places his hand over Lyubimov's and turns it off.
Lyubimov appears comfortable with the role of indulgent patriarch, and seems not to notice the outbursts. He too is a performer: After his more barbed or witty remarks, he pauses and looks around the darkened theater to see how his admirers have taken his comments.
But occasionally his temper shows. Zinaida Slavina sits just behind him. She is a ``People's Artist of the Russian Republic,'' one of the highest titles given to a Soviet actress.
Now she is keyed up, waiting for any errands Lyubimov might have for her. Under her breath she mutters comments about the play or occasionally finishes an actor's line. Lyubimov finally turns on her.
``One more comment and I will expel you from this hall. Don't you know how you interfere with my concentration.''
Slavina slumps back, stricken.
During Lyubimov's five years away, his theater remained fiercely loyal. Many of them never forgave his successor, Anatoly Efros, for agreeing to take the position. Efros died last year and was succeeded by Gubenko, who immediately made it clear that he wanted to restore a number of Lyubimov's productions to the repertoire.
But even some of the theater's admirers concede that the theater is in some ways living in the past. It is haunted by the ghost of its former star, Vladimir Vysotsky, the poet and singer who died in 1980 and remained a nonperson until this year. And it is still under the thrall of Yuri Lyubimov.
After four hours of rehearsal, Gubenko is impatient. ``Isn't it two o'clock yet,'' he asks pointedly as Lyubimov stops to make a another remark.
``It's five to,'' Lyubimov answers smoothly, continuing with his observation.