Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June 2003

This is a review of four separate plays/monologues and one afternoon at the theatre. After succeeding in previous years with collections of one-act plays based on the works of Edith Wharton and Henry James, Shakespeare & Company is presenting four short pieces by their contemporary, Anton Chekhov (1860-1904). Director Normi Noël has wisely chosen four lesser known works: The Celebration, Swan Song, The Harmfulness of Tobacco, and The Brute. In Chekhov’s lifetime the last-named play, the title of which is also translated as The Boor and The Bear, was by far his most popular short work.

Chekhov is one of my very favorite playwrights. While many consider Chekhov the epitome of Russian depression, I find his writing terribly funny. Chekhov referred to his full-length plays as comedies, and he certainly intended his shorter works to amuse. It seems odd to me then that Noël has instructed her actors to “play it straight.” The effect is that they are holding back, because the comedy is inherent in the writing. What could be a highly entertaining afternoon of theatre is rendered more tedious than need be.

The opening piece The Celebration is a typical Chekhovian farce, but in Noël’s production it is slow to start. The plot centers on a pompous bank manager (Benjamin Carr) who has arranged a celebration and tribute to himself in honor of the institution’s 15th anniversary. The Board of Trustees are to present him which a plaque and a silver cup and read a speech (which he has composed) in his honor. But, of course, as he waits in his office for the big event, everything that can possibly go wrong does so. The wacky dénouement (yes, Chekhov can be wacky) comes as more of a surprise this way, but the trade off are some down right dull moments at the beginning.

There is some odd casting throughout the afternoon, and Carr is one questionable call. I felt that he was too young and callow for the role of Shipuchin. Miles Herter, as his beleaguered and slightly insane bookkeeper, Susanna Apgar as his self-centered, loquacious wife, and Mary Guzzy as a tenacious little terrier of a woman bent on retrieving money owed her husband (even though it is not owed by the bank), steal the show right out from under him.

The second entry, Swan Song, is the weakest of the offerings. For some reason, although there are plenty of talented males to be had at Shakespeare & Company, Noël has Diane Prusha playing the central role of a 53-year-old drunken actor musing on the loss of his/her youth and beauty and the inevitable arrival of old age and death. This means that many of the scenes from Shakespeare that are enacted during the course of what is essentially a monologue, must have been changed to suit Prusha’s gender. The result is not what Chekhov intended. Nor is it entertaining in its own right.

Intermission, with its refreshing offering of iced tea, lemonade, and cookies – and the chance to wander the lovely building and grounds at Spring Lawn – was a welcome respite.

You will be glad to hear that things pick up considerably in the second half, with the arrival of Spencer Trova as a hen-pecked school teacher forced by his domineering wife to deliver a speech on The Harmfulness of Tobacco. Trova is delightful and delivers this brief solo turn with the perfect balance of fragile humanity and buffoonery. This performance alone is worth the price of admission and is a don’t-miss gem of the local theatre season.

The last piece, The Brute, again contains some odd casting of Prusha. She is an attractive woman, but she is no longer young. After having seen Apgar’s beauty and charms in The Celebration the selection of Prusha for a role which only emphasizes what she has not, when, as a performer, she has so much to give, seems cruel.

But Herter morphs from the aged, homely crackpot he played in The Celebration to the epitome of swashbuckling manhood for his turn as the very Brute of the title, a single landowner named Grigory S. Smirnov. He comes blasting in to the “tomb” Prusha’s young widow, Mrs. Popov, has created of her country home following the death of her unfaithful husband seven months earlier. Smirnov wants her to repay a debt. In this time before checks, credit cards, direct deposit and the electronic transfer of funds, that is not possible immediately. Smirnov descends into a rage, which precipitates a similar rage in Mrs. Popov, which leads them to a duel with pistols, which leads to…love.

Four one-act plays – some better than others. One afternoon of theatre – overall satisfying and entertaining. One lovely setting in a restored Berkshire “cottage” – priceless.

The Chekhov One-Acts run through August 31 at the Spring Lawn Theatre at Shakespeare & Company on Kemble Street in Lenox. The shows run two hours and fifteen minutes with one intermission and are suitable for the whole family. Call the box office at 413-637-3353 for tickets and information.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2003

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