By Anthony D'Alessandro
By Catherine Wagley
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
The essence of Russian vaudeville is summed up in a scene created by the late actor Alexander Lebedev in the early 1980s. It’s still replayed on Russian TV’s Culture Channel, and it’s hard to find a Russian who can finish describing it without bursting into laughter. It’s a mostly visual gag about a professional thief who awakens for breakfast so hung-over that he’s speechless and needs a shot of vodka to soothe his migraine. Problem is, even when he’s finally able to pour a glassful from the bottle, because of his severe shakes, he can’t get the shot glass to his lips before dumping the liquid onto the floor. His contemptuous wife refuses to assist, so he contrives an elaborate cranelike mechanism from a kitchen towel, which he uses as a sling/hoist connected between the shot glass in his right hand, and looped over his shoulder to his left hand. It’s a 10-minute skit that culminates in the moment of victory when the liquid hits his system, he regains his speech and he belittles his wife for having no class.
Director Sabin Epstein taps this same confluence of physical humor and cultural Zeitgeist in his staging of Chekhov’s The Proposal. An aging bachelor landowner named Lomov (Gross) arrives all puffed up at the home of his neighbor Chubukov (Martin Ferrero) to ask for his daughter’s (Emily Bergl) hand in marriage. Chubukov retires to leave the two lovebirds in peace, but their wooing instantly flares into a squabble over which family actually owns the meadow behind the fence. As his fury rises, Lomov struggles to contain his own failing health — heart palpitations and a loss of feeling in his legs and arms. He screams abuse then instantly clutches his chest and collapses on the divan — a graduate of the “Look What You Made Me Do” school of psychology. Gross’ is a magnificent cameo that conjures the spirit of Lebedev with deep roots in the goofy geometry of Russian folk humor, while Bergl spits fire perfectly in return.
By the time this brand of comedy got to the Catskills from the Ukraine, its Old World cultural and psychological essences were being flattened and propelled by comparatively deflective jokes and one-liners, prepping the genre for radio comedies, variety shows and sitcoms. Curiously, where American dramas are more confessional than Russian, American comedies tend to stake out a greater distance between a joke and the pain that underlies it.
The main joke in Chekhov’s The Anniversary comes from a complaint lodged by a babushka (Anne Gee Byrd) to a bank director (John Apicella) that he owes her husband money. Naturally, she wanders into the bank just as the board of directors waits outside to begin a party. The banker slowly realizes that the old woman’s “entitlement” has nothing to do with his bank, that she’s at the wrong office on the wrong side of town. Byrd’s indignant babushka is nicely textured, but director Michael Michetti lifts a style of farce from the wrong Borscht Belt — one-note hysterics and loud wisecracks that drown out Chekhov’s more subtly pained humor, and the cultural anthropology underlying it — a scorched-earth effect making it a Russian comedy bludgeoned by American intervention.
An overdue payment also forms the core of The Bear, probably Chekhov’s most popular one-act, about a boor (Harry Groener in top form), facing foreclosure, who bursts in on an aging widow (the childlike Dawn Didawick) to collect his debt. Her icy stubbornness only fuels his underlying affections. The connection between rage, lust and economics again shows how firmly rooted Chekhov’s comedies are in the local landscape, and though director Stephanie Shroyer’s nicely modulated production looks a bit like an American sitcom, there’s no harm to its core. Jeremy Lawrence’s goggle-eyed servant is also well-calibrated for gentle, comic effect.
OVER ON THE WESTSIDE, Lost Dog Productions presents Matt Yamashita’s affectionate parody of The Three Sisterscalled Sisters, Oregon, relocated to the 1890s Pacific Northwest for no discernible reason. It’s a bit tawdry and dribbling with anachronisms. Here, Vershinin blows into town as the new sheriff. Under Arthur Milliken’s direction, actors clump around in various performance styles. The humor also comes from the Catskills (via late-night cable TV) — running gags, sexual innuendoes and exposed buttocks. The Oregon setting somehow makes this permissible as the production careens between being completely artless and very funny. It sustains attention mostly from its freewheeling, juvenile charm. Purists will be furious, though I doubt Chekhov would give a hoot. This wink at the similarities between the two cultures comes as though direct from the studios of Saturday Night Live.Anything authentically Russian has been cleanly eviscerated, which really makes the play a parody of unwitting American arrogance.
CHEKHOV X 4| By ANTON CHEKHOV | Presented by the ANTAEUS COMPANY at the NEW PLACE THEATER, 4900 Vineland Ave., North Hollywood | Through March 21 | (818) 506-5436
SISTERS, OREGON| By MATT YAMASHITA | LOST DOG PRODUCTIONS at the BLACK BOX THEATER, 12420 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles | Through March 27 | (310) 489-0617