[CAVEAT: I arrived about two minutes late, so I missed the very opening of the show.]
As the multiplicity of conjunctions in the above title may suggest, this show consists of a collection of shorter pieces, adapted from Chekhov’s short stories and put on by various groups of high school students.
The first one (“A Dopey Fairytale & The Skit”) uses one of the author’s stories as a frame. The bulk of the action is a play-within-a-play that seems to have little to do with his work, either stylistically or thematically. I found myself struggling with two aspects of this production: first, that the sprawling ensemble is so large, and the space so small, that the staging became chaotic and borderline incoherent; and second, that the action was played in a broad, cartoony style that I found grating, that style in which the characters are having a great time, and the actors are having a great time, and everyone involved is having a great time, and, well…I’m not, really.
In the frame story, the characters are played only slightly less broadly, in a way that I suspect undercuts Chekhov’s purpose: the characters are so buffoonish that they can function as nothing but the objects of ridicule, rather than seeing ourselves implicit in their actions and words. If the purpose of the story is satirical, it’s lost in the goofy fun the actors are having with their roles. Which is enjoyable in its own right, but I can’t help feeling disappointed at the sense that the story is getting lost in the process.
The next two represent much freer adaptations, using the stories mainly as loose inspiration, and they’re much more successful, essentially boiling down to a pair of comedy sketches.
“The Next Great American Play” features a coop of chickens trying to form a kind of revolution. Most of the fun to be had here emerges from watching a group of actors behaving like chickens, which is done with varying degrees of success; at least two of the performers are able to milk an engaging and funny performance from the premise, assembling an enjoyable collection of comic tics and mannerisms, while the others are, well, not quite able to achieve the same level of physical commitment.
The final one is by far the strongest, a kind of comic murder mystery taking place between a collection of household tools, and both the text and performers are able to work the premise to its fullest, extrapolating the various personality disorders these tools would be likely to have and building very funny physical performances from it.
There were two problems. First, that it was too long; and second, that a key performer in the piece was placed sitting on the front step of the stage. This meant that I wasn’t able to see him — I would catch glimpses of him occasionally, enough to figure out that he was doing something amusing, but not enough to figure out what that something was. I managed to see him clearly by the end, at which point it was revealed that he was, uh, the central joke of the piece. So it’s a shame that I missed that, both because it explained a lot of confusing aspects of the performance, and because it provided some of the most entertaining moments. So, hopefully they can find a better placement for him.
In all three pieces, the relationship to Chekhov was so tangential that I found myself wondering at their inclusion in the festival. But then, perhaps that’s part of what this festival is all about — right?