Chekhov for Two translated and adapted by Tatiana Chouljenko and Julie Grgar, directed by Chouljenko (Atrium Players). At Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace (16 Ryerson). To December 16. $15-$25. 416-504-7529. Rating: NNN
There’s a portrait of anton chek-hov that sums up how we often see him in the West. His pale-skinned face stares out at us with accusing eyes, the epitome of the serious Russian man of letters.
Chekhov For Two is director Tatiana Chouljenko’s attempt to change this view – Chekhov actually considered himself to be a writer of comedies – and she more than proves her point by adapting eight of his short stories to the stage.
Actor Edward Zinoviev gets the evening off to a good start as Zapoikin, a hard-drinking man who, at the urging of his friend Poplavski (Shawn Mathieson), gives a vodka-soaked speech to the memory of a highly respected government secretary. (Think Steve Buscemi’s slurred wedding speech in the Wedding Singer, only drunker.) From here, the two actors dive into the other seven stories, and the premise that threads them together is simple – maybe a bit too simple. Walking through a cemetery, Zapoikin and Poplavski pass tombs of friends dead and gone. Each cross spurs reminiscences – the stories, which they then act out.
While Chouljenko and co-creator Julie Grgar weave the material together well, this is a literary, not a theatrical, device. We don’t need an introduction to the characters we’re about to see; we just want to see these guys act already.
The good news is that most of the scenes are worth the wait, with Zinoviev playing an array of hot-blooded, bumbling Russian Laurels to Mathieson’s measured and reasonable Hardies.
In fact, some of the evening’s funniest moments result when Chouljenko has her actors play this contrast to the hilt. Take her adaptation of A Death Of A Government Clerk, for instance.In it, Zinoviev plays Ivan, an obsequious man who apologizes ad nauseum to Mathieson’s upper-crust type for having sneezed on him at the opera.
We’re just waiting for Mathieson’s veneer to crack and for him to throttle the man in a fit of rage.
It’s both gripping and darkly comic – proving that sometimes the funniest parts of life are found in melancholy, something Western audiences might not always get.