This production arises from THEATRE FORWARD ALLIANCE, which is made up of the 2008 graduates of the NIDA Directing course, and supported by the NIDA SPRINGBOARD INITIATIVE. THE SNEEZE is a collection from Chekhov’s Short Play output, adapted by Michael Frayn. 5 directors have chosen a work each (there are other works in this compendium): THE EVILS OF TOBACCO (David Harmon); THE PROPOSAL (Morgan Dowsett); THE SNEEZE (Kate Revz); SWAN SONG (Imara Savage); THE BEAR (Sarah Giles) They have shared and worked with 5 actors over a three week period: Keith Agius; Garth Holcombe; Annie Maynard; Berynn Schwerdt; Olivia Simone. This is a Co-Op production.
On a very narrow performing space designed (Renee Mulder) to look like a platform of a railway station, 5 characters are waiting for a train with a collection of baggage and other personal detritus. Out of this, after the faint sound of applause is registered in the space, a play begins. Firstly, Mr Schwerdt transforms into Nyukhin, a hen–pecked husband, and commences a long winded monologue/lecture THE EVILS OF TOBACCO, supposedly about the fact that smoking is bad for you. He, fortunately, for us, strays from his subject often and we find ourselves gaining insight into the human burdens, mostly his wife, and foibles of the man himself. First written in 1886 it had five main revisions over sixteen years, the last in 1903. Chekhov wrote it for the comic actor Gradov-Sokolov. Mr Scwerdt has all the elastic physical skills and energies accompanied by an extremely flexible vocal range to score his comic effects with great alacrity. There is about him an intimate and appealing persona and his direct gambits with the audience are seductive and congenial in setting the evening off to a good start.
To follow, is the first of one of the gems of the Chekhov short play repertory: THE PROPOSAL (1889). A young quarrelsome couple who are put together to achieve a wedding proposal find that their petty misunderstandings obfuscate the principal objective of the meeting. Finally the father has to appear, in the original, to act as a “deus ex machine”, to retrieve the situation and finally joins their hands in a marriage acceptance. Ms Simone, Mr Holcombe and Keith Agius are delightful in the frenzied activity of the scenario. It is a puzzle why the director (Mr Dowsett) has cut the play in half: the second quarrel over the hounds Rover and Tracker, has been cut altogether and then Mr Dowsett elects to give an ending that is the antithesis of Chekhov by not having a proposal or bewildered acceptance. It is doubly puzzling to have the director to substitute with an ending that re-creates the over used imagery of the torture iconography of the Abu Ghraib affair with Lomov hooded by a bag over his head and Chubukov taking photographs with flash, while Natasha gestures a la the female marine, Ms England. How Iraq or its history fits onto any reading of THE PROPOSAL is a mystery to me. Any enlightenment? It is extremely arbitrary, maybe the act of a “vandal”. AH, is that the connection?
We seque into the very hilariously mimed sketch of The Sneeze. All the performers are exaggeratedly amusing and sustain the comedy very well indeed. (Ms Revz)
The next piece is created in opposition to the farce we have had so far. It is SWAN SONG. The play is a dramatized adaption of Chekhov’s short story CALCHAS. First performed in 1888, it is a simple story of an old comic actor (Svetolovidov) remembering his triumphs as a younger performer in the presence of the prompter (Nikita), (also an old man, in the original, which is a significant dynamic change in this production as he appears as a naive apprentice actor, here) “on the empty stage of a second-class provincial theatre.” The sketch is an affectionate idyll of a past life that because of Time can never be retrieved. It can be a very touching, moving experience. The director (Imara Savage) fails to assist the actor (Keith Agius) to reveal the pathos of the piece. It feels slow and sentimentally indulgent without sufficiently explored depths of real grief. Vocally it sits to high. It always has had the sense, for me, of either a provincial actor with grandiose ambitions or a once great actor with the powers of the gift, no more, - either way immensely pathetic. The staging of the Shakespearean quotes from KING LEAR and OTHELLO are oddly anti-dramatic by having them played to the back wall. The impact of the choices by Chekhov squandered. The piece drained the ebullience of the audience I was with and wearied us to a fairly distracted place.
The last play is the other gem of the collection: THE BEAR (1888). Berryn Schwerdt, in a singlet and sweat, creates an explosively passionate Gregory Smirnov and is well challenged by Annie Maynard as “the young widow with dimpled cheeks” Helen Popov. As with THE PROPOSAL a series of inabilities to want to hear, literally, what the other is saying, leads to a catastrophe of misunderstandings that end in seduction over the handling of a gun in a lesson on how to duel. The staging by Sarah Giles, two actors facing out front in extreme positions on opposite sides of the stage, defeats the sexual dance of the two antagonists. It is a bit like watching two tennis players serving to each other from the base lines of the court. The interaction is isolated until too late in the piece. The staging hi-jacks the explosive rubbing against each other of the principal conflict and seems to turn it into an intellectual set of monologues instead of a very heated tussle in duologue. Fussy lighting and sound cues in this piece draw attention to themselves, (this was a trait in Ms Giles otherwise good work in THE HERBAL BED) and do not add, necessarily, felicitously to the exposition of the playing of this vaudeville. The playing of Luka, whom Chekhov creates as, Mrs Popov’s old manservant as an effete young man (is he mean to be “gay”?) is also contrapuntal to the feeling of the piece. It removes some textual nuance of the world of the play.
This is a pleasant evening in the theatre and provides a very interesting opportunity to see several of Chekhov’s vaudevilles, rarely seen. It is interesting to sit them alongside the comedies of his great plays and see how those plays embrace this teasing wicked sensibility of the vaudeville. The great ball room scene of THE CHERRY ORCHARD or the missed gun shots of UNCLE VANYA for instance.
In my estimation it is impossible to teach directing, the skill is acquired by doing. THEATRE FORWARD have taken the bull by the horns and created with the help of the NIDA SPRINGBOARD INITIATIVE an opportunity to practise. The Design, especially the costumes (Renee Mulder) is wonderfully thought through and executed. The Lighting by Matthew Tunchon is atmospheric and useful. (The use of the Bizet and Puccini struck me as idiosyncratic, seeing as there is much in the Russian repertoire that would have been just as evocative and useful.) The pieces play only until Saturday, catch them if you can.