4 By Chekhov – Take My Wife. Please.
Anton Chekhov has quite the reputation for being a bastardly miserable misogynist, and he was that, no doubt…but when you watch his short comedies you get the sense that he doesn’t so much hate women as he hates the idea of marrying one. Chekhov’s men are uniformly drippy, weary, pathetic, sniveling sad sacks. No one gets off too easy on the ol’ train to Coital Breakdown Town with our conductor, Anton. 4 by Chekhov, now playing at Fells Point Corner, starts off great. The set, designed by Tony Colavito, hit just the right chord with me. It looked exactly like my high-school boyfriend’s Hungarian grandmother’s apartment. Man, every surface of that place was draped in red curtains and smelled like dust and cabbage and old love. Toss in a few thousand dollar-store knick-knacks and a stack of TV Guides and I’d have thought I was time traveling. The first of the evening’s four plays, The Dangers of Tobacco, is really just a long monologue staring poor old Nyukhin (Mike Zemarel). He’s a long-suffering bozo hen-pecked into performing a lecture on the dangers of his only vice. Zemarel nails this. His mannerisms are so real they hurt, from shoving his Wes Anderson-esque glasses up his nose to his distinctive laughsnort, he’s so good. This little lion in a mouse’s body had a wonderful slow rage build that tickled me to death. Seriously, I was stuffing a piece of chocolate into my mouth and laughed so hard I like, aspirated it, which caused my partner to look at me with what I would like to think was adoring love (but probably was not). Next up, The Proposal, was just as good. This one had Ishai Barnoy as Lomov, a suitor who is so nervous that he can’t get down on his knee to propose but kind of cringes in the middle of the stage before giving up completely. That’s all right, though. His intended target, Natasha (Laura Malkus), is so stubborn that she can’t even get proposed to because she’s too busy arguing at high volume about property lines, much to the chagrin of her mother, Chubukova (Cherie Weinert). OhmyGod, Cherie Weinert. Ma Cherie. Her unlucky mother of a grown, high-strung daughter was absolutely fantastic (and THAT’s a FACT!). With more than a touch of the old-tyme saloon madame about her, she and Malkus got up to the “dogs only” area of the vocal register a few times in their crazy shrieking quasi-religious gesticulations. LOVED it. Post intermission, things came down a little bit with The Reluctant Tragic Hero. I initially thought the double-casting of Barnoy as Tolkachov was a miss but eventually came around to the idea that Howard Berkowitz (who directed) was maybe presenting a” before and after” joke here. Certainly Tolkachov could be a post-married-to-Natasha Lomov. He is a man being run ragged by his wife during what should be the best years of his life. This piece suffered a bit from the extreme disparity in the speaking parts. Alisa Padon, who plays Murashkina, literally has maybe five lines. Her job is to sit there like a living prop and listen to Tolkachov’s bellyachin’ all the live long day. I hope the child didn’t have to come to every rehearsal! Last but not least came one of my favorite short plays ever, The Bear. Zarah Rautell is Popova, a widow who is practicing an interesting style of mourning that involves vindictive nunnery. She is determined to live and die shut up in her house with her ladies’ maid, Luka (the light-as-air Valerie Dowdle doing a fucking adorable French accent). Rautell cuts an amazing figure onstage. She’s a freaking nine-foot tall vampire snow witch with cheeks that could cut glass (too much?). Into her fortress of solitude bumbles Smirnov (Zemarel again) to demand money from a debt that the late Mr. Popova owed to him. He’s a boor of highest magnitude, feet on the coffee table, grossly eating apples, literally breaking apart the furniture. It’s not long before these the bear and the aristocrat goad each other into a pistol duel right there over the lace antimacassars. A surprisingly short time after that, they’re kissing, so it’s a happy ending. I’m not sure I agreed with Zemarel’s choice to start Smirnov so harshly, he’s a little more threatening than idiotic at first and it takes the comedy down a little but when it warms up, it really gets going. I did have a small complaint about the lighting in this production- I found it really harsh in some places and that killed my Russian tea room vibe a bit and made everyone look shabby and strange (@Achilles, you’d have twitched yourself to death!).
BOTTOM LINE: Oh, this was just fucking great. In this goddamned unending winter it was a beautiful breath of sweet spring air to laugh this hard. Nothing better than funny people doing hilarious tragedy. I wanted to hug this show. Fill the seats on this one.
Running at Fells Point Corner Theatre until April 6th.
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