The first half of "Funny Chekhov" is a lot of laughs, which you don't hear much regarding the writer of works such as "Three Sisters," "The Seagull" and "The Cherry Orchard." The final program of Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre's monthlong celebration lives up to its name a good deal of the time, with a nod to accessible translations, innovative direction and the commitment of a talented company.
- Where: Charity Randall Theatre, Stephen Foster Memorial, Oakland.
- When: 7 p.m. tonight and 8 p.m. Saturday. The rest of the Chekhov Celebration programs: "Three Sisters," 8 p.m. Thursday and 2 p.m. Sunday; "Ivanov," 8 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Saturday; "After Chekhov," 8 p.m. Wednesday and the finale, 7 p.m. Sunday.
- Tickets: $25-$48; www.picttheatre.org or 412-394-3353.
The first two one-acts, "The Bear" and "The Proposal," are particularly raucous and potent, as the Russian master Anton Chekhov takes ordinary situations -- the collection of a debt and a marriage proposal -- and turns them into collisions of will, propelling couples back and forth across the thin line between love and loathing at a dizzying pace.
In the opener, Leo Marks isn't the burly "bear" you might expect, but he puts himself through a physical and verbal workout as a man who confronts a young widow to collect a debt left by her husband. Nike Doukas as Elena is swathed in elegant black to wallow in defiant mourning against the memory of her cruel philandering husband, gone seven months. Smirnov (Mr. Marks) forces his way past her put-upon loyal servant, played broadly and hilariously by James FitzGerald, and banishes her solitude like a thunderclap. He is at once appalled that she can't immediately pay her husband's debt and entranced by her beauty and strong will.
His monologues of turmoil, addressed directly to the audience, are filled with enough vitriol directed toward himself, the object of his confusion, and men and women in general, they could fill a book. As directed by Martin Giles, Mr. Marks barks his words, stalks up and down the stage and rages against the fates of life and love. He's aided by Mr. FitzGerald's comic ability to bounce back from abuse and Ms. Doukas' obviously bubbling desires.
In "The Proposal," Christian Conn and Vera Varlamov take giant steps from their often dour, dark sibling roles in "Three Sisters" and have a blast as a would-be couple who manage to make throwaway comments the cause for a war of words. Mr. Conn's Lomov descends from nervous to a twitching, cramping Fred Sanford, grabbing his chest and warning of an imminent heart attack. Ms. Varlamov's Natalya combats him at every turn -- over a piece of land, who has the more accomplished hunting dog -- while her father (Matt DeCaro) tries to push them together and defend the family honor. Will they get together? Under the direction of Ms. Doukas, the fun is watching them parry along the way.
On simple sets against a backdrop of muted colors, the actors' physicality and engagement take Chekhov's 19th-century words and make them uproarious for a modern audience.
The three one-acts that follow intermission don't achieve the highs of the first half, but they have their moments, particularly Terry Wickline's hilarious amateur playwright in "Drama: A Comedy." At a seaside retreat, she traps a put-upon writer (Robert Haley) into listening to her read her five-act drama. Her constancy and timing and his growing discontent raise the stakes of silliness toward an epic climax.
"Drama: A Comedy" is sandwiched between the monologue "On Evils of Tobacco: A Comic Sketch" and "Swan Song: A One-Act Play," showcases for Larry John Meyers and Alan Stanford. Mr. Meyers plays a beleaguered husband and father of five daughters whose lecture on tobacco swiftly deteriorates into a confessional about his pathetic life. In "Swan Song," Mr. Stanford plays a seemingly washed-up actor, who at 68 slept through his cue and awakes to a nearly empty theater. He struts and frets about his life upon the stage -- making good use of part of the "Ivanov" set and the Charity Randall's backstage area -- reciting excerpts from "King Lear," "Hamlet" and "Othello" and, with only the prompter (Mr. FitzGerald) as an audience, tries to reconcile the closing act of his career.
Michael Frayn adapted four of the works, with the exception of "Swan Song." The finale was a translation by Paul Schmidt, who also adapted the "Three Sisters" in use by PICT for the Chekhov Celebration.
To end the program on a play titled "Swan Song" might have seemed poetic, but it ended the evening on a melancholy note, quite overruled by the memory of the opener, "The Bear," with Mr. Marks regaling the audience with the playwright's views on the battle of the sexes. "Funny Chekhov" indeed.
Sharon Eberson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1960.