KPBS AIRDATE: March 11, 1992
There’s this doctor, see? And he writes plays. Comedies, he says. But the guy who keeps directing them thinks they’re tragedies. He’s given to melodrama, histrionics and excessive sound effects. It’s enough to drive a playwright to …. Yalta .
And so there he is, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, taking the Black Sea air in 1900, hacking away from tuberculosis while he sneaks nips of alcohol and his favorite cigars. And into his bored solitude swirls the Moscow Art Theatre , headed by its flamboyant director, Konstantin Stanislavski, accompanied by actress Olga Knipper, who is out to become Chekhov’s wife.
Are you keeping up? Well, throw in a few references to Tolstoy’s tedium, and appearances by the politically radical Gorky and the popular writer Bunin. Stay with me here. There’s Chekhov’s spinster sister Masha, a dour woman who watches over him like a tight-lipped hawk. There’s Stanislavki’s ignored wife, who’s more than attended to by Stanislavski’s partner, Nemirovich-Danchenko. Then there’s the ingenuous maid Fyokla, who is more than willing to have private, after-hours drama instruction from Stanislavski, the master.
The stage is crowded with Russian drama — and plenty of comedy. The first act is simply hilarious. Rapid repartee, loads of name-dropping and theatrical in-jokes. It’s a lot funnier if you know about Chekhov and the impending Revolution, and a little about Ibsen, and the cool disagreements between Chekhov and Stanislavski.
Everybody seems to be having a grand old time, although things slow down and straighten up quite a bit in the second act. Writers John Driver and Jeffrey Haddow put the literary humor in the first act and the saved the sexual exploits for the second. I prefer the banter. But I also got the in-jokes.
Anyway, at least half of the evening at North Coast Rep is great fun, and this is a smashing directorial debut for Rosina Widdowson-Reynolds, who’s already shown herself to be a consummate actress. She also seems to be an actor’s director. She knows just how to play a moment; she has a marvelous feel for rhythm and timing, and with aplomb, she wedges those eleven people onto the narrow North Coast Rep stage. Marty Burnett has transformed the strip of stage into a lovely, sun-mottled garden setting, populated by an enchanting ensemble.
Ron Choularton is one of San Diego ‘s most malleable actors. He’s proven to be equally at home with comedy and drama, and here, as Chekhov, he mixes sarcasm, wit, despair and romantic optimism to delicious effect. Robert Larsen isn’t quite what one imagines as Stanislavski — pompous yes, but fatuous? Well, some of it is in the writing, and he’s one actor who can pull it off.
If you like theater, there’s plenty in here for you: The company problems of new plays and no money. The prima donnas and personalities. The poor, frugal actor. The naive young actress-wannabe. It’s all here. Now, if you just brush up on turn-of-the-century Russian theater, you’re in business. And you’re in for a good time.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS Radio.
©1992 Patté Productions Inc.