Virtue, Desire, Death and Foolishness–an Evening of Tales from Anton Chekhov, adapted for the stage and directed by Melania Levitsky.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Benedicta Bertau, David Anderson, Rob Roy*, Eddie Allen*, Celia Schaefer* (*Member Actors Equity Association); photo: Dan Region
"If she is here alone without husband or friends..."
In 1973 the American playwright Neil Simon adapted ten short stories by Anton Chekhov into a play he called "The Good Doctor." He took his play to Broadway with some very big stars including Christopher Plummer, Barnard Hughes, Frances Sternhagen, Rene Auberjenois, and Marsha Mason. It was a modest hit. The combination of stars (three men and two women) and stories performed the hat-trick, 216 performances, four Tony nominations and one Tony winner, Frances Sternhagen. The show has been seen regionally in recent in years in a production at the Ghent Playhouse.
Fast forward now thirty-six years to Hudson, New York where Walking the Dog Theatre has turned their hands toward some of the same source material, creating their own adaptation of Chekhov’s non-dramatic tales. On a clever set designed by Katie Jean Wall, another company of five players, three men and two women, are delivering a high-impact presentation of this material in a new format, a new adaptation of other fiction. The results are remarkable. I saw the show late in its run with a large audience and that is as it should be.
Eddie Allen, Benedicta Bertau, David Anderson, Rob Leo Roy and Celia Schaefer are certainly the talented equals of the cast that brought a similar experience to Broadway. They all appear in multiple roles, including narrative ones, and with the simplest of production values: a shawl, a blanket, a beret or a rose-endowed choker, they switch roles and take on new characters.
This show is drawn from nine of Chekhov’s bits of fiction. In some cases the source material is the same as in the earlier outing. Death of a Government Clerk is the same story as The Sneeze, for example, and The Ninny is the same story as The Governess. Fortunately there are enough good Chekhov stories to go around and most of the material used by Melania Levitsky in constructing her fascinating evening are stories not formerly adapted by Simon. She maintains the literary quality of the work with narration drawn straight from Chekhov's own writing. The style is unmistakeable.
Her structure is a fascinating one. A troupe of Russian players enters with their stage props, instruments and costumes. They carouse a while, playing wonderful music, dancing and then they begin their evening entertainment for the townsfolk gathered in the hall. With no formal introduction they launch into their first playlet - one that is divided into six segments which play out, bit by bit through the evening, interspersed with other complete tales.
It is wonderful to watch Benedicta Bertau, violin tucked under her chin, singing and dancing while she plays. There is a frivolity there that helps to set up the sense of "play" that abounds for the next 90 minutes or so.
Bertau also devastates her audience in "Vanka" as she plays a little boy, apprenticed to a shoemaker, who writes a letter to his only living relative, his grandfather. It is a letter of appeal and promise but one that will almost inevitably have no positive effect. Taken from one of Chekhov’s shortest stories it carries one of the largest emotional punches.
David Anderson is at his ironic best in two of the stories, as the clerk whose sneeze brings about dire consequences due to personal guilt he is both touchingly funny and equally touchingly tragic and as the somber apparition in The Black Monk he moves us to thoughtfulness.
Celia Schaefer is romantically tragic in The Lady with the Dog moving from an aloof quality into a passion, progressing to high dudgeon, distraught defeatism and thence to furtive self-awareness. Considering that this role is divided into segments that surround other pieces in which she participates the fact that she holds it all together with such mastery is a tribute to her and to her director as well. Her transitions are seamless and believable.
Eddie Allen, as The Lady's seducer, then lover, and Rob Leo Roy as so many characters serve the piece admirably. In fact the company as a whole plays beautifully together, moving easily from comedy to the darker aspects of Chekhov’s stories. I only wish they had a place in which to perform this show other than the Basilica Industria. Though it lends itself nicely to the concept, it is a hot and humid spot which, on the night I attended, was unusually stuffy and uncomfortable.
Deena Pewtherer lights each piece effectively and Jonathan Talbott provides suitably played music to help enlighten the evening.
This is an evening of theater that should be revived as soon as possible, while the players still have the exquisite precision that is brought to the forefront in their work. In November, they return to Chekhov with a more personal story and that should be something to see. The stories here may be just a taste of the meal yet to come.
Walking the Dog Theater’s production closes today. They can be found, however, at www.wtdtheater.org or at 518-755-1716.