BWW Reviews: WE PLAY CHEKHOV is Reader's Theatre at its Finest
There's a sad phenomenon that occurs when an artist shows extreme talent and brilliance in one artistic medium. We tend to reward that talent by unjustly pigeonholing that artist into that medium alone. Case in point: Chekhov. We revere the Russian artist as a playwright, but we forget that he wrote an abundance of short stories as well.
It seems fitting and somewhat ironic that Breaking String Theatre stages two of Chekhov's short stories as plays, but regardless of medium, Chekhov's tales and characters are absolutely spellbinding.
We Play Chekhov, now playing at the Rollins Studio Theatre, is a double header of The Black Monk, adapted by Kama Ginkas and translated by John Freedman, and The Beyonce, adapted by Eliza Bent from Chekhov's The Fiancee. While The Black Monk stays incredibly faithful to the original story in both setting and language, Bent's The Beyonce takes a contemporary approach to Chekhov's original story by setting it in the modern day United States. Nevertheless, both plays capture Chekhov's trademark style, poetry, and blend of comedy and drama.
The Black Monk follows a brilliant scholar, Andrei Kovrin (Matt Radford. When visiting the countryside, Kovrin has hallucinations of a monk dressed in black. Though Kovrin doubts his own sanity, he embraces the visitations, and as he obsesses over the monk, he descends further into madness. In The Beyonce, young bride-to-be Nadia (Katy Taylor) questions whether or not she should get married at all. Should she do the expected thing by marrying the dull Andre-Andree or should she buck convention, move away from her family and fiancé, go back to school, and live life on her own terms?
Graham Schmidt, who directs both plays, gives each the treatment that they need and deserve. The Black Monk, has a Gothic thriller feel to it, while The Beyonce has a lighter, more comedic air about it. Schmidt keenly avoids a trap that most directors fall into when directing a double-header. No attempt is made to tie the pieces together, save for the use of the same set, sleekly designed by Ia Enstera, and a handful of actors who appear in each piece. By not forcing a connection between the two, Schmidt allows each play to stand on its own, and both are enjoyable in their own right.
Schmidt has a gift for superb casting choices as well. Katy Taylor shows extreme versatility in her dual roles as Tatyana in The Black Monk and Nadia in The Beyonce. There's not a shred of similarity between the sweet, innocent love interest in The Black Monk and the modern feminist nouveau-Bohemian in The Beyonce, but Taylor manages to create two interesting, genuine women out of the contrasting characters. Likewise, Noel Gaulin shows great range in his roles as the titular Black Monk and as Nadia's best friend Sasha in The Beyonce. At times sinister and at others comedic, Gaulin's take on the Black Monk is delightfully unpredictable and highly physical. As Sasha, he's more grounded but still quite comedic, this time due to his ability to spew witty one-liners.
Matt Radford also shines in The Black Monk. The play, which is told through Kovrin's prespective, relies heavily on Radford's performance, and he's absolutely brilliant. According to his biography, Radford's back on stage after a two year hiatus, and it's probably best not to dwell on what Austin audiences must have missed in those two years. Radford's voice is particularly compelling. There's a Laurence Olivier-like dignity in the cadence of Radford's voice, and that's something that suits Chekhovian language quite well.
Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission.
WE PLAY CHEKHOV plays the Rollins Studio Theatre (701 W. Riverside Drive, Austin 78704) now thru August 24th. Performances are Weds - Sat at 8pm and Sun at 5pm. Tickets are $22. For tickets and information, please visit www.breakingstring.com