BWW Reviews: RUSSIAN REVOLUTION: 4 BY CHEKHOV by Guest Critic Mark Squirek
An outgrowth of his facility for exceptional short story writing, Chekhov's initial forays into playwriting gave the world one acts that began a revolution in the way audiences and professionals approached theater. The four plays that make up 4 by Chekhov at Fells Point Corner Theater are among his most humorous and most revealing.
For many, these short one acts, The Dangers of Tobacco, The Proposal, The Reluctant Tragic Hero and The Bear are standard bearers for modern stage. Either seen individually or grouped together as Director Howard Berkowitz has done for this production, they represent the start of something new in theater.
In the broadest terms, prior to Chekhov's rise as a playwright, the previous theatrical tradition was one of broad farce and melodrama. Chekhov's work began a shift into representing a more complex emotionality, an acknowledgment of the duality of all our existence.
That we, as humans, can often hold conflicting emotions, and even conflicting points of view while maintaining a sense of internal logic.
Director Howard Berkowitz' notes for the evening reinforce this point. After telling us that he grouped the plays together because they represent Chekhov's approach to gender relationships, he then moves into the historical context.
"Chekhov referred to all of his short comedies as vodevily (vaudevilles) in an attempt to establish a kind of dramatic camouflage for his comedic-tragic sense of the world..."
The director also acknowledges another aspect of Chekhov's work. One often forgotten by modern audiences, critics and scholars. As Berkowitz writes "It is through these short plays that Chekhov, the Russian Master, succeeded in elevating the French Vaudeville - often thought of as second rate - into an art form..."
Most modern productions approach these works with a modern sensibility. Moving these one acts back into the world of Vaudeville takes nerve. And the attempt should be applauded.
But ultimately inconsistent performances and technical problems inside the production don't follow through on the premise.
When the lights go up on The Dangers of Tobacco Mike Zemarel, as Nyukhin, walks hesitantly into the light and pauses. Zemarel's smile and natural presence give a warmth to Nyukhin's obvious nervousness. He hesitatingly starts into his lecture and we can't help but feel ourselves being pulled into what he has to say.
However, as the piece moves on, the intimacy of the tone starts to disappear. The actor's rhythm begins to change. The humor in Chekhov's writing is still there, but begins to change shape as the actor moves forward.
It's not that he slips into the broadness of vaudeville or clowning. Zemarel, a skilled actor and director on his own, seems to become inexplicably disconnected from the audience.
This first one act also reveals a problem that would surface throughout the evening, blocking for the sake of movement.
Too often we see Zemarel moving left and right, going around to the front of the podium and then back. Moving his character from nervous into hyper.
Yes, movement was a big part of a vaudevillian delivery. But Chekhov's writing gave actor's very natural pauses, and those natural pauses extend into their movement. As hinted at in Zemarel's performance, this excessive movement would come to be the bane of this evening's work.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the next piece, The Proposal.
Cherie Weinert appears as Chubukova and the actor immediately establishes herself with a perfect portrayal of a haughty dowager with pretensions. A knock at the door introduces her young neighbor Lomov (Ishai Barnoy) who has come to ask for the hand of her daughter Natasha (Laura Malkus).
Lomov is, as almost any suitor would be, naturally nervous. And so the excessive movement begins....and seldom stops for the rest of the evening.
When his intended Natasha shows up, the movement slips into overdrive. As Lomov, Barnoy begins to prowl the stage with the unfocused energy of a three year old who has to pee. With none of the odd charm found in a three year old.
At first Natasha anchors herself to a corner of the dining room table on the far right side of the stage. There she sits for the next few minutes as Lomov bobs and weaves in and out of hers space as if he is a boxer deciding whether to finally hit his opponent or just go for a sandwich. One minute Barnoy is over-selling his point one minute and the next, under-selling as he occasionally slips into mumbling.
When Natasha is finally pulled into the action, the piece quickly devolves into a shrieking match between two birds with Barnoy flailing away trying to add a second dimension to his character.
Malkus does the heavy lifting for them both as, even though she is forced to match Barnoy's tone, her Natasha stays logically engaged and true to the idea that inane, furious arguments can grow out of the least likely circumstance.
When Chubukova returns to find out what all the screaming is up to there is no place for Weinert to go with her character except right to the top of the already shattered emotional stratosphere For the next few minutes the actor's seldom stop moving.
Which leads back to the biggest problem of the evening, the excessive movement. That said, when the movement stops, the plays become a joy.
Near the end Natasha and Lomov are alone on the couch. Everything and everyone one is, for a second, finally still. Slowly Natasha begins to rub her stockinged-leg against a pre-occupied Lomov.
And Barnoy and Malkus are absolutely wonderful to watch!
In a few simple gestures Malkus (Natasha) delivers a very-real woman using what she has to manipulate and charm her newfound husband-to-be. A calmed down Barnoy (as Lomov) is perfect as the disorientated suitor. His energy moves to the internal and for the first time we see him think, we see him engaged.
This calm amidst the storm, this stillness of suitor and his intended is mirrored inside the evening's final one-act, The Bear.
Smirnov (Zemarel) has come to collect a debt from the widow Popova (Zarah Rautell). Over the course of their time together they argue, quickly escalating to the threat of violence and duel with pistols.
Left alone after Popova storms out, Smirnov has a flash of insight. He realizes that in the space of just minutes he has fallen in love with the widow.
As happened in The Proposal, the movement of those on stage becomes our focus. When Popova returns and the argument picks up again Zemarel is particularly hamstrung as he moves so much that he is often forced into short, choppy steps while parading about without reason.
Rautell almost seems be making a conscious decision to not match Zemarel step for step. Her innate grace saves her from appearing to move unnecessarily. That same grace allows the actress to also make Popov's eventual decision to fall for Smirnov appear logical.
When the two lovers come together and sit united on the couch the actor's shine inside their characters. The frustrated and sensual nature of Ratuell's Popov balances the arrogant, yet needy blowhard of Zemarel's Smirnov.
We understand the attraction between the two just as we did when Natasha and Lomov sit close together and nearly motionless inside The Proposal.
The third one-act, The Reluctant Tragic Hero, features Alisa Padon as Murashkina. Creating a wonderful and understanding foil for the put-upon Tolkachov, Barnoy's second character of the evening.
Just as he had in The Proposal, Barnoy places his character in the world of animation by running back and forth like a monkey on a hotplate. This makes Padon's relatively motionless take on Murashkina even enjoyable as she stands by helplessly filled with equal measure of disbelief and concern.
Over the course of the evening there were technical problems as well. The show had lighting miscues and shifts in emphasis that, while obviously designed to occasionally emphasize a monologue, only served to distract from the actor's hard work and the intent.
During the set change between the third and fourth one-act the actors were caught in full light, then blue light, then orange, then darkness. This problem with lighting wasted the work of more than one actor
Valerie Dowdle, who was perfect as Popova's maid Luka during The Bear, delivered the closing line to the play with killer timing. This left the audience and evening poised to end on a good note. But the final lights stayed up for an eternity destroying what the actor had so skilfully set up.
The juxtaposition of the modern rock music that filled the air between scenes and acts stood out against the beautifully designed, classically-based set. It might have worked better if it wasn't so harsh. With the overly familiar song titles over-emphasizing what was going on, the intended effect was ruined by employing the obvious.
Given the quality of the actor's involved the problems in evening's production, director Berkowitz either allowed the cast to do whatever they wanted or, looking to duplicate the earlier mentioned style of French Vaudeville, he moved them deliberately into the much broader and manic performances that we see.
Either way the responsibility for the problems of the evening have to fall on his shoulders.
As an exercise in academia, the evening was a reminder of how theatrical styles mutate and change across centuries. As an evening of theater, it was uncomfortable watching the hard work on stage go to waste. And even harder to enjoy Chekhov's words.
4 by Chekhov continues its run at the Fells Point Corner Theater, 251 South Ann Street in Baltimore, now through Sunday, April 6th, with performances at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and Sundays at 2 p.m. (There will also be two Thursday performance on March 20th and March 27th at 8 p.m.) Admission: $15 for Thursdays and Sundays, $20 for Fridays and Saturdays. For tickets, please go to www.fpct.org.
ABOUT MARK SQUIREK: A graduate of UMBC as well as The Players Workshop of Second City, Squirek has acted in, directed or written numerous plays over the last 25 years. In 2006 Broadway World named him Playwright of the Year for his one act SOD. He has worked at theaters in New York, Chicago, Baltimore and Washington D.C. For two years (2007-2009) he was on the Board at Mobtown. His most recent short story can be found in the just published anthology, Night Beat--a collection of fiction based on the 1950's NBC radio show centered on a night case reporter for a large Chicago newspaper. Squirek also regularly contributes to The New York Journal of Books.