Many know Anton Chekhov as a prolific writer of short stories and the author of four titanic, moody dramas. However, before writing his first play, Chekhov was a famous humorist looking to branch out into serious drama. His first produced play, Ivanov, was such an abject failure (booing, riots, and fistfights in the aisles), that he started writing short comedic sketches, or ‘shutki’ (‘jokes’ or ‘vaudevilles’) before returning to more mature works later.
Pantagleize Theatre Company’s admirable mission is to bring rarely produced plays to the Metroplex, and this little known aspect of Chekhov’s career makes for a perfect project for the Fort Worth company. They have collected a trio of comedic one-act plays for their latest production A Chekhov Valentine.
This romantic triptych begins with The Brute (sometimes translated as The Bear). Mrs. Popov, a regal in grief Suzie Forte, is marking the seven-month anniversary of her husband’s passing and ignoring the pleas of her footman, Luka (Timothy Crabb), who would like to see her get out of the house more, when they are interrupted by the boorish Mr. Smirnoff (David Ellis in full red-faced bluster). Smirnoff demands payment of a debt from the late Mr. Popov. The setup offers opportunity for some light zingers about men and women, though the plot unfolds in predictable fashion. It makes you wonder why this play was a favorite of Tolstoy’s.
The equally farcical, yet more satisfying A Marriage Proposal is next. Ivan Vassilevitch Lomov (Aaron Plaskonos), a neighbor of Stepan Stepanovitch Chubukov (Robert Rake), is seeking marriage to Chubukov’s daughter, Natalia Stepanovna (Mary Jane Greer). After receiving enthusiastic permission to marry her, he keeps trying to propose only to become mired in the kind of petty disputes and arguments characteristic of long-time neighbors. This play is, by far, the best-acted of the three. Plaskonos is disarming as the sputtering suitor, and Rake shows a deft hand in his transitions from gentleman to indignant loudmouth. Greer is simply captivating as the spoiled Natalia, using every facial expression, and vocalization to her advantage.
A Wedding follows a short intermission. The largest cast (nine actors) of these one-acts portrays a “typical Russian wedding” amid a fancy reception table complete with face-obscuring candelabras. This one is a drunken mess of sniping, competing nationalisms, and skewerings of the moneyed elite. Greer is again fantastic playing the besotted Madam Zmeyukin, and James O’Neil stands out as a hilariously catty telegraph clerk.
Jim Lott directs his first production at Pantagleize with mixed results. Some of the issues lie in material that has some difficulty translating to modern audiences, but the problems mostly stem from over nervous actors trying too hard to please. A bit of pacing work (these little ditties should be practiced, rapid fire comedic assaults), and choosing one accent (Russian or not) could do wonders for the show. That being said, one cannot help but admire their earnestness and root for them to succeed.
Chekhov had a complex love-hate affair with his plays, but even in these light-hearted comedies we can still detect the dark genius that would blossom in his later works.