“I found more clouds of grey/Than any Russian play could guarantee.”

Anton Chekhov (1860 - 1904) is almost certainly the Russian playwright Ira Gershwin was thinking of when he wrote those lyrics to “Not For Me.”

But audiences will get a chance to see more than just the gloomy side of Chekhov this month, as he becomes the focus of the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre’s 14th annual Master Playwright Festival – launching with an opening night lecture on Jan. 22, and running until Feb. 9.

ChekhovFest offers up the biggest festival yet - with 19 full productions, two readings, three lectures, radio drama, and a pair of free film screenings (making the $85 Chekhovpass, which allows admission to all shows, a good deal – even if it is up five bucks from last year).

Through the productions, audiences will have a chance to see what makes Chekhov a master playwright. He’s considered one of the fathers of modern theatre, noted for helping move theatre from 19th-century melodrama into a more modern, and realistic, form, focused more on reflecting the reality of human drama.

“It is necessary that on stage everything should be as complex and as simple as in life,” he wrote. “People are having dinner, and while they’re having it, their future happiness may be decided or their lives may be about to be shattered.”

But it’s also a big year for adaptations and “works inspired by” the playwright. Only eight of the 19 full productions are actually using a script by Chekhov - the others are adaptations (like Rod Beilfuss’ About Love & Champagne, which turns two Chekhov short stories into a monologue), or works inspired by Chekhov (like the Black Hole Theatre Company’s production of Aristocrats - a play by master Irish playwright Brian Friel).

Here are three of the ChekhovFest shows I’m most looking forward to seeing:

Theatre by the River & little ECHO theatre The Cherry Orchard

Chekhov's classic The Cherry Orchard will be presented by Theatre by the River & little ECHO theatre. (courtesy RMTC)

1. The Cherry Orchard (Theatre by the River & little ECHO theatre): For a master playwright, Chekhov did not leave a huge body of theatrical work.He’s mostly known for four full-length plays - The Seagull, which sees an RMTC production at this festival with an excellent cast; Uncle Vanya, being produced by the Tara Players; Three Sisters, being produced by Winnipeg Mennonite Theatre; and The Cherry Orchard, being presented here by two of Winnipeg’s best indie theatre companies, with a great local ensemble.

2. Ivanov (WJT): The world premiere of a new adaptation of one of Chekhov’s lesser-known full-length plays, by Winnipeg Jewish Theatre artistic director (and Governor General’s Award nominee) Michael Nathanson. This production also features a cast of top-notch Winnipeg performers.

3. Three Sisters: A Black Opera in Three Acts (Who is John Moe? Productions): If you want to see a wild adaptation of Chekhov, look no further than this dark Prairie gothic comedy, by former Winnipegger Kristine Nutting. It was a hit at the 2005 Winnipeg Fringe Festival, and is another play making a welcome return to the local stage (in the “non-traditional” venue of Club St. B, no less).

And a couple of late-breaking scheduling changes which you won’t see in the printed ChekhovFest program… The festival has added Westwood Collegiate’s show Chekhov: Comic Sketches for Jan. 29 – 31. And all performances of Theatre Incarnate’s Chekhovian Dreams have been cancelled.

ChekhovFest runs at venues around Winnipeg until Feb. 9.