Russian Roulette

"I went to Cuba for New Year's, and sat on the beach trying to read Chekhov," laughs Frank Theatre artistic director Wendy Knox, as if she'd just described trying to sell tampons at a Promise Keepers rally. "It was impossible." At the time, Knox was in the preparatory stages of her newest production, the functionally titled Chekhov Project, which opened last weekend at the Southern Theater. Buckling under the "cognitive dissonance" of reading Chekhov beneath a palm tree, Knox put the work on hold until returning to the more Chekhovian Minnesotan clime, where she set about planning her virgin dalliance with the seminal Russian author.

For those unfamiliar with Frank Theatre, it should be noted that Knox, an extremely sharp and reliable fixture in the alternative theater scene, never does anything the normal way. This time out, the one-woman theater company enlisted a "think tank" of friends to take a look at the range of the physician/writer's work, including his full-length plays, one-acts, and numerous short stories. But instead of homing in on any particular piece, Knox began to detect connective tissue between Chekhov's shorter works. "The short story was really Chekhov's form," says Knox, who found herself charmed by the wit betrayed in these encapsulated sketches. "People don't think of Chekhov as funny, but he's got a great, dry sense of humor. The great plays are misinterpreted, and that's what gives him a bad rep as being this dark, boring writer.

"I started thinking there was an opportunity to do something a little more original," Knox says, "with all these great weirdos sitting around the table." Among these weirdos numbered the theatrical Renaissance man Michael Sommers (who helped design the set), choreographer Laurie Van Wieren (known for her poignantly absurd character-dances), and Southern Theater lighting designer Jeff Bartlett.

Another of these freaks was Kira Obolensky, a playwright who descends from a grand, blue-blooded Russian clan that was forced to flee Russia and refused permission to return until 1993. Knox and Obolensky ultimately decided to mount two wedding-themed one-acts and connect them with a short-story adaptation, to be penned by Obolensky. The writer pounced on the task. "I gave it to her on Friday," Knox recalls. "She was deathly ill, and by Monday she had 20 pages. She's taken this story and made this great, new little Chekhov play."

And it's true: "The Bride to Be" is the strongest segment of the show, sandwiched between the farcical miniplays "The Proposal" and "The Wedding Reception." Knox took a calculated but serious risk in cobbling together an evening of Chekhov on such a strict clock, and the results are just as uneven as might be expected. The production's design, costumes, and live music, along with Van Wieren's wry choreography and freeze-frame group poses, constitute the show's most coherent elements, binding the three disparate pieces. The rest unravels.

This being Chekhov, the first vignette takes place at the country home of some random landed gentry where a sickly little man (Charles Schuminski, who always seems to play the sickly little man) pays a visit to propose to his neighbor's brassy daughter (Carolyn Goelzer). Instead, the two squabble about who owns a particular piece of land, and whose dog is superior. While the story starts off humorously enough, it loses momentum halfway through, and the couple's haranguing becomes predictable, and predictably annoying.

Knox reports that the thought of mounting an evening of offbeat Chekhov occurred to her just five weeks before opening, and in scenes like this, it shows. The actors, perhaps lacking adequate rehearsal time, revert to characterization-by-tic: Goelzer in particular falls back on her shrewish shtick (at times resembling her performance as the witch in last year's Into the Woods). And with all the hollering and pleading, whatever subtextual questions may exist remain unexamined: Why does this woman claim she wants to marry while she sabotages her chances? Why does her father (Jack Melberg) abet his daughter in driving off her suitor? Without attention to these deeper layers, Chekhov's work can easily become mundane and, as Knox concedes, boring.

"The Bride to Be," the longest and most serious piece, seems to have been given more time to gestate, and it provides a graceful, melancholy core to an otherwise hollow production. Written in 1904, just before Chekhov died of tuberculosis, the story follows a betrothed young woman who takes inspiration from an artist friend in Moscow, and decides to slip the marital noose that her mother has set for her. Virginia Burke is assured and supple as the young woman. At times she's a trembling mess, at others she's got the hard-won confidence of a young woman who has, as she says, chosen to marry the world.

Goelzer is moving in her depiction of the girl's mother, particularly at the moment she looks out the window alongside her own mother and realizes the girl has left them. Still, the depths again go unexplored: This character should be at least as complex as her daughter, and her own sad metamorphosis--from an enthusiastic hobbyist and dabbler in hypnotism to a God-fearing crone--could be equally meaningful.

After this muted and meditative journey, it's a trick to slide into the primary colors of "The Wedding Reception," a jumbled, loud, drunken precursor to Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding and spiritual kin to the party scenes in Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander. One expects this piece to wrap things up, to highlight whatever throughlines we missed earlier; instead, it unravels the already loosely woven fabric of the evening, and then goes on about 10 minutes too long.

One can't help but wonder how this trilogy might have looked with another week of rehearsal. Though the show certainly would have been better, time alone might not be all that is missing in this mix. Between The Chekhov Project, the recent production of The Lady from the Sea at 15 Head, and the Broadway musical Ragtime, turn-of-the-century sexual politics seem a hot ticket right now. So what remains to be said about Victorian marriage? Though Knox manages to wrap an old lesson in a new package, once the bow has been removed any surprise dissipates quickly.

Mixed Blood's production of Maria! Maria, Maria, Maria!, directed by John Clark Donahue, is equally unprovocative, though its subject matter is more modern--the racial stereotyping on TV sitcoms. Written by Lisa Loomer, who worked for years as a TV writer, the show is designed as a live taping of a multiculti family sitcom called There Goes the Neighborhood. The neighborhood here is a veritable rainbow coalition: At the center is a plainly incredible family comprising a Hispanic woman (Rose Portillo), her East Indian husband (Zaarwar Mistry), and two daughters--one African American (Tezra Bryant) and one Japanese (Ann Kim).

This crew endures visits from their neighbors, a "cockamamie crippled kike" (Michael Tezla), a "lesbian Italian-Armenian" (Marquetta Senters), and a "hardworking, smart, and mean" Korean woman (June Lu). The latter's only line seems to be "You people are stupid." The sitcom segments are spliced with long, tiresome rants on the state of network TV, and behind-the-scenes looks at the actors who are forced to play these flattened, racist versions of themselves.

Rose Portillo is luminous as the actress playing Maria, and she saves this play from becoming a mere political ping-pong match by conveying the real emotional damage in her degrading charade. She's losing the will to play the game, and continually goes off script into manic soliloquys. In one particularly funny, affecting moment, she steps away from her ironing table and doubles over, squealing, "I cannot live in your imagination, because it is too small!"

This comedy is packed with insightful moments, and the actors deliver luxurious, fully fleshed-out monologues on their particular experiences with racism (e.g., the Jewish actor has to pretend to be Italian in order to get hired to play a Jew). But the laughs in this comedy are few, and many of its funniest moments, oddly, are born out of the very stereotypes the show seeks to dismantle.

Like The Chekhov Project, this play suffers from a disjointed quality, an overabundance of frenzy that grows increasingly hard to sit through without an intermission. And like Frank's play, Maria! Maria, Maria, Maria! does not end with a satisfying sense of completion. Instead, the show sputters toward a seemingly random finish. And we're glad to applaud at the end, because, along with these beleaguered actors, we've earned it.

The Chekhov Project runs through March 15 at the Southern Theater; call 340-1725. Maria! Maria, Maria, Maria! runs at Mixed Blood through March 15; call 338-6131.

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