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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
The Chekhov One-Acts: The Celebration, Swan Song, The Harmfulness of Tobacco,The Brute
By Elyse Sommer
When Shakespeare & Company was still housed in Edith Wharton's estate the annual One-Acts usually consisted of a pair of Wharton's stories, with additions from her good friend Henry James. But as the company has expanded so has the reach of this delightful series with its tea and cookies intermission.
Review of the Chekhov-Wharton One-Acts). This summer Chekhov has the intimate stage of the now comfortably air-conditioned Springlawn Mansion Theater to himself. The four playlets, written during the very early years of Chekhov's writing career, are hardly on a par with The Cherry Orchard, The Seagull, The Three Sisters and Uncle Vanya. Yet, these sketches were popular in his time and are still often variously organized for popular light theatrical fare or used individually as curtain raisers.
The two longest pieces, The Celebration and The Brute, which bookend the quartet director Normi Noël has assembled are comic farces. The title of the first refers to the fifteenth anniversary celebration of a bank. Kuzma Nikolay Hirin (Miles Herter), the sour righthand man of the bank's pompous young director, Andrey Andeyevitch Shipuchin (Benjamin Carr), is desperately trying to finish his employer's acceptance speech for the celebratory event -- without much luck since he is constantly interrupted by Shipuchin's chatter. Shipuchin's nonstop talk, in which every other sentence is punctuated with "sure as my name's Shipuchin" is nothing compared to the distractions that pile up with the arrival of Shipuchin's chatterbox wife Tatiana Alexeyevna (Susanna Apgar) and an impoverished woman, Natasia Fiodorovna Merchutkin (Mary Guzzy) who insists that the bank manner can help her to receive the money owed to her husband upon being dismissed from his position as a civil servant. By the time the Director (Bob Lohbauer) who is to officiate at the speech making arrives, all four characters have turned into a dissonant and cacophonous band of craziness.
Diane Prusha, a One-Act regular, gets a meaty monologue in Swan Song about an aging actress who has taken to drowning her sorrows about her diminishing career in vodka. She also stars in the final and most popular of Chekhov's short plays, The Brute. Her character here is Mrs. Popova, a widow determined to be true to her dead husband even though he was unfaithful to her. Miles Herter, no longer disheveled and wracked with coughs and sneezes, plays the title character, who invades and brings romance into the widow's reclusive existence. The boom-voiced Herter is well cast but Ms. Prushka is a a bit too old and full-figured to fit his angry creditor turned lover's talk of her as a" mere slip of a girl."
My own favorite was Chekhov's comic "lecture", The Harmfulness of Tobacco in which the hapless and unhappy Ivan Ivanovich Nyukhin (Spencer Trova) manages to reveal much about his life with his bossy wife while avoiding the topic assigned to him (by his wife). Trova manages to compress this Walter Mitty-like tale into a tight twenty minutes, capturing his character's physical and mental discomforts.
These One-Acts are an interesting opportunity to see a great playwright in the making, with revelatory glimpses of the compassion that was to mark his later and greater work. For more about his background and links to other plays reviewed, see our Chekhov Backgrounder Page
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