Swan Song, Uncle Sergei and A Boring Story

The show opened with TigerLion Works’ “Uncle Sergei,” and I’m genuinely sorry to conclude — particularly since I know one of the performers, and know her to be both very funny and very talented from class work that I’ve done with her — that this is something of a failed experiment. I’m already intensely ambivalent towards the use of the red nose on-stage, and I’m saying this as someone with a degree of clowning training; while the device may have served as a useful indicator for an audience a century ago, and while it may be a useful teaching tool now, I simply can’t see what function it serves on the contemporary stage other than as a kind of barrier.

The premise here is to take the text — yet another Chekhov parody — and have it interpreted by a trio of clowns. Whatever virtue may be found here is buried beneath technique that simply isn’t very funny — at least, I wasn’t able to derive much enjoyment from it, and the audience I was with tonight didn’t really seem to be sharing their trip, either. Most egregious of their choices is for each actor to be equipped with a wacky “silly” voice, which rapidly became grating.

I found the whole experience intensely depressing, honestly — here’s a trio of people who have devoted a significant portion of their lives to mastery of a discipline, and the end result of that is a production which buries a potentially interesting script beneath centuries’ worth of dogma. I wish I could find something more positive to say, but the whole exercise is built on a premise that seems so deeply misguided to me that I’m not sure what more to add.

So, most of my reviews for this festival have been complaining to various degrees about how each company seems to be almost embarrassed about Chekhov, hiding him behind all manner of theatrical devices, and how nobody seems to really be trying to play the material straight, and then, bing bing bing bing, Zealots and Mystics finally does a production that I really, really, really like.

The piece is an early vaudeville sketch by Chekhov called “Swan Song,” dubbed “tragicomic” on the website, although I didn’t find it particularly funny — but that’s not a bad thing! It’s simply staged and simply done in every respect — the only tech is a single ghost light in the middle of the stage, and the show consists of two thespians, wandering a theatre late at night, talking about art and life and death and whatnot — and I don’t know what possible resonance this could have for someone who hasn’t devoted their life to the theatre, but speaking as someone who has, man. This resonated up the wazoo. It’s nothing more than a really solid, old-school piece of theatre, two skilled actors dialoguing with each other on stage, without much in the way in technical trickery to back them up — and they don’t need it, either.

Would probably have more to say about that piece, except that they were grandly upstaged by the finale, “A Boring Story.” Which isn’t a dig, because the closer was *phenomenal*. Here, at last, is the Chekhov that I’ve been hearing about. The piece is largely a monologue (interspersed occasionally with dialogue from two other excellent actors) by an old man, armed with a kind of reflexive wit — not out of any desire to be any kind of rebel, but just because he’s too damn old, too damn exhausted, and too damn disillusioned to give a fuck about tip-toeing around his ideas anymore.

Make no mistake; the piece is aimless, meandering, shapeless, and *brilliant*. It’s peppered with quotable one-liners that are genuinely profound, scattered freely throughout an ocean of words, of amiable rambling that’s not at all unpleasant to listen to. Smart, too, forcing a degree of self-confrontation that’s even making me choose my words carefully *now*.

This is the fourteenth piece I’ve seen in the festival so far, and I’m telling you, if you see one, this is the one to see. I think that stapling the three together onto a shared bill was probably a mistake; the last piece is very long, and very thoughtful, and *complete*. Nevertheless, they’ve got one performance left, Saturday the 23rd at 7pm, and it’s worth worth worth catching.

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