Week Two of ChekhovFest serves up three comedies

Chekhovfest continues until February 9.
The Anniversary, one of two Chekhov comedies (L-R: Rachel Hiebert, Dean Duncan, Tim Beaudry, Ardyth Johnson) shows at Chekhovfest 2014. (Merlyn Productions)

The Anniversary (Merlyn Productions)

The two short Chekhov comedies that make up Merlyn’s second ChekhovFest entry - the comic monologue On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco and The Anniversary  - are pleasant enough little pieces. But an uneven production makes for a fitful hour of laughs.

Tim Webster finds some nice moments as a henpecked lecturer in ...Tobacco, particularly in mining pauses for comic effect. But overall, a snappier pace would make for sharper comedy.

Likewise for The Anniversary - a slight little farce about the comical complications on the anniversary day of a bank. It gets a welcome shot of energy with the arrival of Rachel Hiebert (as the bank chairman’s wife, Tatiana) and Ardyth Johnson (as Nastasya, a comically manipulative “poor, defenseless woman”). The leading men in the cast (Dean Duncan as Shipuchin, the bank chairman; and Tim Beaudry as Khirin, his put-upon assistant) don’t fare quite so well, unfortunately - their performances are just too stiff to sell the comedy of the piece.

Granted, they haven’t got “A-list” material to work with - Chekhov isn’t a celebrated playwright because of his one-act comedies. But while they land a few laughs, I wish this Anniversary had a few more.

Chekhov and Me, a play by Mike Bell and starring James Durham shows at Chekhovfest 2014. (Manitoba Association of Playwrights)
Chekhov & Me (Manitoba Association of Playwrights)

“If you show a gun in the first act, it has to be fired before the end of the third.”

That’s a paraphrasing of the rule for writers that’s come to be known as “Chekhov’s Gun” - and it instructs writers to remove anything unnecessary from their work. Chekhov & Me, a play by Mike Bell premiered by Theatre Projects Manitoba in 2006, seems to flaunt that rule with its stream-of-consciousness flow. But by the end of the smartly scripted and beautifully performed solo show, it’s evident Bell has left in nothing extraneous - however trivial it may initially seem.

The loose plot follows a writer (James Durham) struggling with writer’s block. But he’s also wresting with a far bigger problem - and with the ghost of Chekhov himself, who haunts and taunts the stopped up writer.

The apparently rambling monologue is laden with profanity and pop culture references (think David Mamet meets Community), and riffs on everything from TV spin-offs to Apocalypse Now before reaching its conclusion - which ties most of the preceding 45 minutes together neatly.

Under Robb Paterson’s crisp direction, the play crackles along, offering up plenty of great laughs. Durham shows off outstanding comic chops, and a pretty mean Christopher Walken impression, in a fantastically energetic performance.

It’s a fun, witty ChekhovFest entry that hits the bulls-eye.

The Quick-Change Room is Nagle Jackson’s amusing 1995 play performed at ChekhovFest by community theatre company Shoestring. (Shoestring)
The Quick-Change Room (Shoestring)

Can you be artistically relevant and make money performing Chekhov? That’s the question not just for the performing companies in this festival, but for the company at the heart of Nagle Jackson’s amusing 1995 play The Quick-Change Room, performed at ChekhovFest by community theatre company Shoestring.

The play sets itself backstage at the Kuslov Theatre in St. Petersburg in 1991 - as a newly independent Russia was still in the throes of perestroika, its own “quick change.” Just as Russians struggled to adapt to newfound freedoms and the rise of capitalism in their nation, the actors and crew of the Kuslov debate whether to stage Chekhov’s Three Sisters in an artistically pure way - or to turn it into something more commercially viable. I won’t spoil the ending, except to say it gives the two-hour show a hilarious conclusion.

Shoestring gives the play a credible production, with competent performances throughout the 10-person cast. There are lots of good chuckles in Maureen Taggart’s production, although the comic timing could be a little bit sharper.

It all amounts to a comedy of not-quite-Chekhovian brilliance - subtlety is not its strong suit, and some of the humour’s pretty broad. But if you’re looking for a fairly light comedy that won’t make you think too hard - a rarity at ChekhovFest - you may want to step into The Quick-Change Room.

ChekhovFest runs at venues around Winnipeg until Feb. 9. Hear Joff Schmidt's review on Thursday February 6 with host Ismaila Alfa on CBC's Up to Speed.