CHEKHOV'S HEARTACHE created and performed by Dean Gilmour, Michele Smith, Claire Calnan and Monica Dottor, directed by Gilmour and Smith. Presented by Theatre Smith-Gilmour in association with Factory at the Factory Studio (125 Bathurst). Runs to May 29, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2:30 pm. $21-$28, Sunday pwyc-$20. 416-504-9971. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Theatre Smith-Gilmour returns to the short stories of Anton Chekhov for its latest work, Chekhov's Heartache . Thankfully, the well is deep and pure, and the company's theatrical artistry sure.
Drawing on a pair of stories, Peasants and Peasant Women, the quartet of actors ( Claire Calnan , Monica Dottor and directors Dean Gilmour and Michele Smith ) examine the hard lives of villagers.
These characters don't discuss art or bettering the lot of humankind, as do those in Chekhov's plays. They talk about surviving in a hard world.
The longer piece, in which an ill Moscow hotel waiter returns with his family to his village, is full of wonderfully drawn characters who pop up seemingly out of nowhere.
With the addition of a hat or scarf, relying on skilful body language, tone of voice and simple props like buckets and a samovar, the four actors sketch vibrant, easily recognizable figures, populating the entire village - even its animals. They're given great support by Kimberley Purtell 's suggestive lighting and Victoria Wallace 's simple but transforming costumes.
The equally involving second narrative, a tale within a tale, has a political undercurrent. A group of women listening to men blame them for all the world's ills have thoughts of revenge upon their male oppressors. Yet even here, compassion is a female trait.
Both stories depict a harsh life for the lower classes, where beatings are common, food is scarce and anyone with a touch of authority takes advantage of those further down the pecking order. There's no Christian charity here, just Christian forbearance. The only respite from suffering is an occasional moment enjoying the calmness of nature or remembering the past.
It's hard to commend individuals in this tight ensemble, which has developed the material through group improv. But Calnan, new to the company, makes a special impression with her varied characters, from a raging granny to a battered wife, from a simple, fun-loving daughter to a pitiable second wife whose son has been sent away.
Chekhov's Heartache is a fine example of stage magic, a production that creates much from little. Key to a theatrical piece based on storytelling, it shows as frequently as it tells. As the actors conjure a range of emotions and resonantly touch us, we're treated to Chekhov's view of the human comedy as well as the human tragedy.