Anton Chekhov sits in the pantheon of dramatists. We’re talking Shakespeare, Shaw, Molière, Ibsen, a couple of others.
Despite dying young at 44 and only having a handful of major plays with which to establish his reputation Chekhov influenced theatrical tropes with conventions that are used to this day.
Even the name Chekhov, at two syllables amazingly short for a typical Russian name, was appropriated for a character in the 1960s series Star Trek. There’s nary a major writer of the 20th century who was not influenced in some way by Anton Chekhov.
Chekhov wrote ten one-act plays, five of which are featured in the world premiere production of Little Comedies. New translations of Chekhov by Richard Nelson, Richard Paver, and Larissa Volokhonsky, themselves considered celebrities in the realm of translators, highlight the current production at the Alley Theater that runs until October 29, 2023.
The one-acts that compose the evening’s entertainment are The Bear; The Proposal; The Wedding; On the Harmfulness of Tobacco; and Swan Song.
I salute the Alley’s programming that focuses on world premieres from new playwrights. However there’s nothing like classic theater whether Kaufman and Hart or Shakespeare or Chekhov.
Combining atmospheric sets and lighting with the Alley’s acting company the moods, motivations, and schemes of Chekhov’s characters create powerful sustained scenes.
Some are funny while others are bittersweet. Swan Song uses a lighting scheme where there’s a single key light in the SE corner and a less bright fill in the NW corner. The shadows create the perfect counterpoint of an aging actor recalling remembrance of things past. Todd Waite embodies that character so profoundly.
Anyone sitting on the front row is prey to moments throughout the evening where an actor will start talking to one person in the audience specially. Everything’s so close. The Neuhaus space, a theater in the round, is the definition of intimate. Four bleacher sections that align to the compass. You’re right on top of the action. But the breaking of the fourth wall best describes the feeling Chekhov elicits. Firmly entrenched in hard cold reality but also seeming a bit absurd.
The Proposal has the biggest laughs of the vignettes. An escalating comedy of manners unfolds as Ivan comes to woo Natalya. The barbs fly fast and shrewish. There’s a bit where they are comparing their dogs, one named Swifty, one named Spotter. The canine names are a good indication of the modern sensibility of the translators. A copy of the play I have from the 1970s has the dog’s names as Squeezer and Guess.
The third presentation, The Wedding, makes sense in its place in the line-up as a power hitter. Melancholy and sarcasm bounce back and forth between the largest cast of the one-acts. It also makes sense to take an intermission afterwards since the players are literally gathered around a table eating. There’s a lot of props, plate and glasses to move. Yet the stage isn’t cleared until after the intermission with cast members gathering up the plates and glasses as the tables and chairs are shifted into place for On the Harmfulness of Tobacco.
This monologue could be delivered like a slapstick falling down comedy about vice and addiction. It’s a popular choice at dramatic contests. Instead David Rainey as Ivan seems to exclaim his manifesto with a kind of deep despair. Laments of life are hurled across the stage.
Whether it’s comedy derived from cruelty or the abandonment of hope upon the realization of metaphysical existentialism the characters created by Chekhov are just once removed from ourselves.