July 14, 2002
The Collected Shorts
special to ArtSavant|
Why does the world have such a proliferation of Shakespeare companies, and not enough (are there any?) that celebrate the inimitable work of Anton Chekov? The Farm Theatre, a group of actors composed of students and recent college graduates, are performing four of Chekovís short stories, translated by Eric Bentley, at the Off-Tryon Theatre Company in Charlotte.
Besotted with information, itís tough enough to wade through the current onslaught of books, movies and theatre offerings. Who has time for the classics? Well, make time, because Chekov is worth it. No one provides more astute observations about the intricacies of human beings. Iím grateful there are students with enough depth of knowledge and appreciation of dramatic history to bring him to the North Carolina stage.
Chekovís cast of characters is so vast it embodies just about everyone you know, from your frantic next-door neighbor to your shrill unmarried niece. Like Shakespeare in his time, Chekov appeals to the masses because he represents them. Unlike Shakespeare, Chekov reveals his characters through dialogue, not plot, and through conversation, not guile. While Chekovís characters successfully capture the larger essence of human emotions, they are also distinctly Russian. The slightly shabby living room set is an appropriate setting for the air of slight desperation most of the stories exude.
In The Farmís production, the narrator is a lone and engaging Russian voice identified only as Matthias Grunwald. Cagey and wry, Grunwald warns us that the characters we are about to witness are "fearful and dangerous creatures. They are not like you." Of course, they are exactly like all of us, in one way or another.
In Summer in the Country, Barney Baggett plays Tolkachov, a high-strung man whose life is spent running errands for an ungrateful wife. Chekov lived from 1860 to 1904, but this guy sounds like a soccer mom without a car. He exudes a familiar sense of road rage and despair, as he paces the stage, complaining about the mundane details of his life to Murashkin, played by Jason Loughlin. At one point I worried Baggett was going to puncture his skull with his own thumb.
In The Brute, which is also translated as The Bear, Loughlin gets a bigger piece of the action as a polite, but hobbled servant who acts as an ineffective buffer between his boss, the grieving Mrs. Popov, and Smirnov, a businessman who has barged into the household to hound the widow for money owed him. Rasheeda Moore plays a feisty Popov, who has decided to wear widows weeds to prove to her cheating dead husband that she will remain faithful. Go figure. Bryson Avery is a stalking and growling Smirnov, who sweats and threatens to no avail, and eventually changes his mission completely.
Matt Cosper plays Ivan Vassilevitch in A Marriage Proposal. Vassilevitch is an aging bachelor resigned to follow convention and take a wife. Cosper is practically manic as he writhes, stumbles and argues his way through the Stepanovitch household. His very physical performance is amusing, but crosses the line toward outlandish. With slapstick, sometimes less is more.
Natalia Steponovna, the object of Cosperís wan affection, is played by the spirited Tara MacMullen, whose character practically crackles with static electricity. She is marvelous.
The production wraps with a somber soliloquy called The Harmfulness of Tobacco, starring Richard Newman. OTTC is the perfect house for a man behind a podium. Newman uses the intimacy of eye contact to his benefit as he diverges from his intended lecture to a plea for the audience to understand his life as a downtrodden father of five girls, and the husband of an overbearing woman.
Keep an eye on the The Farm. Theyíve got heart and skill, a delightful combination.
Lynn Trenning, July 14, 2002