I had previously thought, both from reading and seeing The Seagull, that Chekhov’s story of overlapping unrequited loves mostly belonged to Constantine. The would-be writer’s life is arguably most messed up by his mother’s return to her country estate with a new boy toy in hand. His choices open and end the play. He’s the voice pushing for growth, artistic experimentation, action. And, head over heels for his childhood crush, Nina, he’s a stereotypical romantic lead.
But Tom Keenan has been miscast in the part. There’s a lack of conviction, a resistance to exploring a darker emotional palette – his Constantine would rather appeal than fight for what he wants. Maybe emphasizing the “young” in this young man is the right choice, but it seemed to reduce his potency as a suitor, his stakes in his romantic and artistic battles.
Without a strong Constantine to orbit, the production’s attention spins out to other spheres. A very strong “supporting” cast accepts the burden, however, and an evenly balanced Seagull with every subplot given weight is the result. Tom Rooney’s Trigorin nails a conversation about dissatisfaction with his own writing and, hell, every scene with Tracy Penner’s Masha is a lesson in walking the line between comedy and tragedy. Ross McMillan, Harry Nelken and Terri Cherniack all put in performances that would steal scenes if they weren’t onstage with other scene stealers.
Without a strong Constantine, the play is also more morally ambiguous than I remember, a quality emphasized in Krista Jackson’s direction. The acceptance of these characters’ tragic lives as everyday fare – now that’s tragic. And wonderfully unsettling.
By Anton Chekhov
Through February 8
Directed by Krista Jackson; with Tom Anniko, Sharon Bajer, Andrew Cecon, Terri Cherniak, Bethany Jillard, Tom Keenan, Stan Lesk, Rob McLaughlin, Ross McMillan, Harry Nelken, Tracy Penner, Kerri Potter and Tom Rooney; set and costume design by Sue LePage; lighting design by Scott Henderson; sound design by Michael Wright; apprentice set and costume design by Ksenia Broda-Milian; stage managed by Chris Pearce; apprentice stage managed by Linsey Callaghan.
A deceptively simple story is given a wonderfully conceived incarnation in this remount of Adhere and Deny’s 2007 production. From the false ending that kicks off the play – as a wreck of an actor winds up a turd of a period melodrama – to the final hug he shares with his little wooden friend, there’s a tonne of thought behind this one-man show that nicely expands on Chekhov’s ode to the downward spiral.
Graham Ashmore’s role as Svietlovidoff, the ruined actor, is harder than it looks. When the character himself is an over-actor (and most of his journey involves peeling off layers of insincerity), keeping the audience engaged and onside is a struggle. It’s up to inspired gags and comic timing to bring the audience along, though they lacked the freshness and in-the-moment invention the original production had. But once Nikitushka enters and Svietlovidoff begins to face his reality, there’s fantastic work to watch.
So then there’s Ashmore’s role as sweet little Nikitushka, which is smarter than it looks. Chekhov’s bleakness is fully fleshed out casting the failing actor’s only friend as a manipulated heap of fabric and wood. At the same time, Chekhov’s comedy and optimism are fully fleshed out by the same device: as long as the play lasts, that puppet’s alive. Now that’s clever.
Take a bow, Grant Guy.
By Anton Chekhov
Adhere and Deny Theatre of Objects and Puppets
Through Feb 2
Directed and designed by Grant Guy; with Graham Ashmore; costume design by Carolyn Gray; audio by Angela Somerset and Tom Elliott; poster and postcard design by Susan Chafe; documentation by Leif Norman.
A troupe of horrific clowns gathering to revive this year’s long dead master playwright is the most irreverent festival show you’ll see. It’s not always the most successful; the very physical comedy that has worked so well for the Talentless Lumps in the past doesn’t cuddle up nicely to the text-heavy Chekhovian works they spoof. These buffoons work best on their own territory – or when they turn on the audience and bring back the element of danger that makes great clowns so feared and loved.
I could write about the Lumps as extreme examples of Chekhovian isolation. And I’d be shitting you, because the show is a healthy dose of fucking fun for anyone starting to feel weighed down by Chekhov’s angst and/or the winter. ✓it out.
F#©koff ✓- off
By the Talentless Lumps
Through February 1
With Babaghanoush, Berthout, CorNeil, Dawna, Gastromargia and Vitefeetfeetvite
Seeing this many Chekhov plays back to back, I’ve started to question the line between style and life. What if Chekhovian tragedy is just realism with Russian names?
Rod Beilfuss is cornered by the same thought. The Brazilian-born actor recently returned from one of the epicentre’s of English theatre – London – to a frozen city with a tenth the people and an even smaller fraction of arts vitality. He lays out his insecurity with his home, his career, his cultural appropriations and his identity. That all seems very intellectual and removed, but there’s a clawing away at the both the guts of being a man and the idea of being a Winnipegger that’s very visceral in this one-man show.
But the opening section is in danger of losing itself in circular arguments, theatrical in-jokes and navel gazing, however personable the actor is. There’s an obvious gear shift a third of the way in as Beilfuss folds two Chekhov short stories – “About Love” and “Champagne” – into his life story. While it’s difficult to tell from here on where biography ends and the fiction begins, the change from inertia to action is a one hundred per cent improvement. And Beilfuss’ skills as a storyteller take full flight.
Romantic without being emotionally self-indulgent, witty, About Love and Champagne is an gusty, vulnerable response to Chekhov from one of our own – as hard as that might be for Beilfuss to accept. It’s a perfect reflection on why this dead Russian’s works suit our city so well.
About Love & Champagne
By Rod Beilfuss
Inspired by Anton Chekhov
Fancy Bred Theatre
Through February 8
Created by Rod Beilfuss; produced by Stephanie Plaitin.
This remount of “Quickies with Chekhov” from this year’s Fringe (changing out one of the stories and two of the actors) moves through six short stories with blazing speed while never feeling rushed. That isn’t just clarity of language at work, but clarity of thought and action on the part of the five-person cast, who fluidly swap roles in the inventive minimalist production. Audiences who were enthralled by two men standing in for a horse on the MTC mainstage in Jane Eyre should pull up a chair for the tricks this cast throws at the show (and realize plays swapping production budgets for imagination isn’t just more fun – it’s the norm).
The selection of stories of the abused and dispossessed – a rejected suitor, a dominated wife, a kept chorus girl – gradually ratchets up tension until the great comic release of the food obsessed Siren in the final piece. It all goes off like a polished piece of clockwork, the joy and skill of the performances standing in sharp contrast to the misery of the characters.
They don’t have much hope for better lives, but I’m looking forward to more from This Reality – perhaps stretching themselves out on the wider canvas of a full production?
Stories by Anton Chekhov
This Reality Theatre Company
Through February 2
Directed by Lia Zarrillo; with Kristian Jordan, William Jordan, Madeleine Roger, Brittany Thiessen and Paul Titley.
Matthew TenBruggencate is a Winnipeg-based writer. He is owned by two cats. Follow him @tenbruggencate, where is he spreading nasty rumours about you.