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Russian Lark

Finding The Funny In Chekhov's Careful Observations Of Human Foibles

YOU, ME, AND ANTON: (from left) Charlie Mitchell and Taylor Craig get wacky with Chekhov.

By Josephine Yun | Posted 7/19/2006

Just for Laffs! An Evening of Chekhov

By Anton Chekhov

At the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre through Aug. 5

Artists, neighbors, creditors, spouses--if you don't know these types of people, you will. And if you already do, you'll meet them again. Currently in production at Spotlighters Theatre, Just for Laffs! An Evening of Chekhov features five selections from Seven Short Farces by Russian short-story writer Anton Chekhov. These hilarious shorts showcase exactly how brainless people can be, with men and women at their nonsensical best.

In "Swan Song," bleary-eyed actor Svetlovidov (J.R. Lyston) stumbles onstage, still in costume, drunk and wheezing. He laments his life: "Sixty-eight years down the drain and it won't come back." He wallows in monologues before poor Nikita (Branch Warfield), who actually lives in one of the theater's dressing rooms. He brightens when reminiscing about a beautiful woman but can't go on with his life. Yet he keeps coming back, reviving himself long enough to regress. Nikita even trades lines from various plays with Svetlovidov in hopes of restoring his confidence, but to no avail; Svetlovidov continues to waffle and waver, vacillating between pride and despair.

In "The Proposal," nervous guy Lomov (Charlie Mitchell) asks Chubukov (Mark Squirek) for the hand of his daughter Natasha (Taylor Craig). Chubukov gladly fetches Natasha, who starts chatting with and goading Lomov without knowing his intent. To broach the subject, Lomov recounts their families' history as neighbors. He mentions a plot of land that he owns, but Natasha stops him. The land belongs to her family. Lomov disagrees. Natasha insists. She tackles him. After Chubukov breaks them up and Lomov leaves, the original reason for Lomov's visit slips out--much to Natasha's mortified dismay.

For "The Bear,"reclusive widow Yelena (Kathy Ireland) encounters Smirnoff (Russ Addis) when he shoves his way past her servant Luka (Warfield) to collect a debt owed to him by her late husband. Yelena tells him to come back in two days. Smirnoff refuses; he needs the cash now. Yelena leaves the room; Smirnoff plants himself in a chair. When she returns, their arguing culminates in a duel. While Yelena goes to get the guns, however, Smirnoff finds himself less adamant and more attracted to her gutsy, spitfire desire to kill him.

"A Reluctant Tragic Hero" features Tolkachov (Squirek) asking Murashkin (Addis) to lend him a gun. Murashkin balks: "What's so bad?" Tolkachov, distraught, sits down and starts talking about what it means to be a married man in the summertime. You rent a place in the country. You're roped into doing favors for your wife, your wife's friends, your neighbors, your neighbors' friends, and friends of friends of your wife and neighbors. You go into the city with multiple lists of multiple things--and it just gets worse. "I have become a psychopath," Tolkachov says. "Nobody understands how I feel." To retain his sanity, he implores Murashkin for his sympathy: "Please tell me you understand."

The evening concludes with "The Festivities," in which overworked bank clerk Heerin (Lyston) is writing a speech for manager Schipuchin (Mitchell) to read at a celebration commemorating the growth of their branch due to begin in a few hours. In walks Schipuchin's blond chatterbox wife, Tatyana (Craig). She starts talking, absently scattering everything on Heerin's desk. She eventually leaves, but then another woman arrives. Merchutkina (Ireland) begs Schipuchin for money because her husband is unemployed. "I'm just a poor, weak woman," she repeats. Tatyana returns. Finally, Schipuchin asks Heerin to throw Merchutkina out--but Heerin misunderstands.

Laffs! is a production in which everyone stars. Addis' finest performance is as the imposing, blustering, ga-ga Smirnoff. Squirek hints at and lends glimpses of his ability as Chubukov before completely engaging as the gasping, overrun, end-of-his-rope Tolkachov. Ireland is maddeningly competent as the neurotic and totally inappropriate, out of place, and oblivious Merchutkina. Craig sports infinite potential and fresh talent as both Natasha and Tatyana, and the dynamic between her and Mitchell--aptly afflicted as Lomov, helpless as Schipuchin--is believable. Finally, Warfield is indispensable, providing understated yet unwavering support in four of the five plays.

Blending from one set into the next, Laffs! railroads the audience with characters that are disturbingly, mischievously familiar. The Spotlighters players are blunt and uncompromising in their deft exaggerations, highlighting all the petty antics and hysterical inconsistencies of which humans are capable. Ultimately, the production introduces an intriguing, little-known combination: Chekhov and comedy. Who knew?

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