Puppets and clowns at ChekhovFest

Reviews of “Swan Song” and “F#ⓒkoff Check­off” at Chekhovfest 2014.
F#©koff Chekhov (The Talentless Lumps) is part of the Master Playwright Festival. (RMTC)

F#ⓒkoff Check-off (The Talentless Lumps)

What with all the dreariness and angst in his work, Chekhov is a prime target for some good satire. This rude, crude bouffon clown show makes an energetic run at it, but never seems entirely certain what its comedic target is.

The five women who make up the Lumps begin promisingly enough, with a bizarre seance aimed at resurrecting good old Anton (“He was so RUSSIAN!” they wail).

But from there, things descend into a meandering, only occasionally funny series of clown sketches, some of which seem to take aim at Chekhov, some of which target manners, some of which are just plain confounding.

There are glimpses of how this show could have worked, including a pretty funny skewering of The Seagull. The performances are enthusiastic — so much so that one actor actually broke a wall of the theatre running into it on opening night, drawing the performance’s biggest laughs.

And there’s clearly talent in The Talentless Lumps — it just needs more focus than this show offers.

Swan Song (Adhere and Deny Theatre of Objects And Puppets)

Who’d have thought the image of a man crying on a dummy’s shoulder could be so moving?

Graham Ashmore as Svietlovodof With Nikitushka in Swan Song. (Leif Norman)
With Swan Song, director Grant Guy offers up an intriguing take on an early Chekhov one-act play. The role of Svietlovidoff, an actor in the twilight of both his career and his life, is played by Graham Ashmore.

And the play’s other role, the prompter Nikitushka, is played by a ventriloquist’s dummy — operated by Ashmore.

It has the strange, but powerful, effect of cutting the high tragedy of Svietlovidoff’s meditations on the end of life with an absurd comedic streak. And it’s a fitting approach, since so much of Chekhov’s later (and more substantial) work attempted to create a blend of tragedy and comedy.

Ashmore’s superb performance is by turns spirited and subtle, and he manages to both make Svietlovidoff sympathetic and Nikitushka a credible character (although he’s clearly no ventriloquist).

Clocking in closer to 30 minutes than the 60 listed in the program, Swan Song doesn’t overstay its welcome but provides a satisfying serving of Chekhovian tragicomedy.

ChekhovFest runs at venues around Winnipeg until Feb. 9.