nytheatre.com review by Ivanna Cullinan
October 15, 2006
Chekhov had a sense of humor. Really, he did, even if it might not be evident in all those painfully serious productions of his full-length plays out there. Luckily his humor shines through in this marvelously enjoyable production, which features some of his one-acts along with adaptations of a few of his short stories.
As the audience sits in the basement level Ace of Clubs, we are suddenly startled by a truly funny double-take as a trio of traveling actors discover the bar. They then tromp in and start to make use of it, until deciding that after all the space is a theatre and now is the time to put on a show. This decision leads to a lively romp through six quick pieces, all of which add up to a full evening of laughter. Some are familiar, like The Sneeze, and others, such as Alien Corn, deserve wider audience. It is a charming mosaic of Chekhov's work with a grand variety of humorous styles.
The even begins with Drama, in which a successful playwright is accosted mercilessly by a woman with dramatic pretensions. The endless script of Murashinka (Laura Piquado) drives Pavel Vasilyevich to extreme lengths, which ironically reminded me of the feeling of an audience member when a play goes on too long for too little purpose. Luckily for the potential audience of Madame Murashinka's play, Pavel Vasilyevich ensures it won't be a problem.
Alien Corn involves a battle between nationalistic sensibilities over lunch, where Kamyshev the landowner (Dan Matisa) browbeats the hapless family tutor, who is French.
(This brings me to a question I have about the production: in this scene both Russian and French accents are used for their comic potential, but why are accents used inconsistently elsewhere within the production? To not use accents at all would have been fine, as would to use them throughout or in some specific pattern. Instead they are used in the framing device and Alien Corn and then make occasional appearances in other pieces, which is slightly distracting because of its randomness. But that is a small quibble, when the consistently successful comic execution is considered.)
The Sneeze is lovely piece of mostly silent theatre, which uses all three actors well and surmounts the unnecessary inclusion of a Bush (?) puppet as one character's wife. Both The Bear (where Piquado and Matisa are at their best, nuanced and determined, very funny) and The Proposal comically exploit miscommunication between the sexes with very different but vastly enjoyable results.
The Evils of Tobacco is a one-man piece that is hugely entertaining, largely due to Jason O'Connell's marvelous relationship to the audience. Perhaps drawing on his standup experience, O'Connell's comfort allows him to be simply and fully present as the hapless Nyukhin, the hen-pecked husband who delivers this monologue. It makes for a more immediate sense of the comedy, removing the frames of "Russian" and "19th century." He could have been seated at the bar upstairs in modern dress and telling all this to person on the next bar stool.
The premise of this production is that it's a "play in a pub," with the intention of making full use of the bar as a theatre. Overall, the idea works here. The plays move about the front part of the space a lot. Better use could have been made of the actual stage area behind the seating area or the side benches but as it is, the staging has charm and works. The audience is seated café style with additional space along the walls for latecomers, and the admission includes two drink coupons. However, that does result in a ticket price of $35. Now, when you consider that a showcase production can charge up to $19 and depending on where/what you drink, that could run to $16, it really isn't overpriced. Also, the acting is full energy and does not disappoint. On the other hand, not everyone drinks, and the production values, specifically props, are not high. I hope Phoenix Ensemble Theatre will be able to market the virtues of the production over the pricing, which might scare some people off and would be a shame, as this is a very funny show.