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Three's (Almost) A Charm for the Nora

Three by Chekhov at the Nora Theater directed by Daniel Gidron at the freshman Union Theater

By Thomas Madsen

Long before Chekhov ever wrote his classic plays The Seagull. The Cherry Orchard and Uncle Vanya and sometime after he had established himself as a brilliant story writer for magazines, he wrote a few short comic pieces for the stage. He called them "vaudevilles," though none actually incorporated musical theater. Their designation rested on their qualification as grotesque caricatures of the absurd.

What song and dance these farces did contain were elaborate displays of obstinacy, performances of personal complaints through which combatants beat each other into submission with ever greater, less reasonable demands for attention.

In the three pieces selected by the Nora Theater Company, The Bear, The Proposal and A Jubilee, compromise comes only from sexual relief, a mating of the two warring parties who would otherwise go on bickering in perpetuity. Awkwardly adapted, The Bear and A Jubilee prove disappointing by Nora standards while The Proposal, featuring stellar performances from Scott Richard and Nada Despotovich, is a masterful romp in comic exasperation.

In all three, gender conflict is the dominant theme. Mysogyny in particular erupts from the mouths of men frustrated over petty disputes which their female interlocutors won't let them win. It's brilliant Chekhovian parody of how men clash with stubborn women and the antagonism that gets coaxed to the fore in the process.

The Bear hyperextends this motif. A creditor, Grigory (James O'Brien), visits the grieving maid, Elena (Mimi Huntington), to collect on a debt from her late fiancee--only to find she has no money. Inevitably the two turn to fighting each other as man and woman, the man swearing through his teeth that women are faithless and the spurned woman obviously holding a much stronger case.

Elena does everything she can to kick Grigory out; insults fly, but then the gloves come off. Suddenly Grigory has challenged Elena to a duel on the field of honor; when she accepts, he appreciates the allure of feisty women. The rather predictable conclusion has potential, but a lack of attention to rhythm and pacing compromise the mounting tension far too much. By the time the porter returns with field hands to watch in utter incredulity as the two, with pistols drawn, collapse in passionate embraces on the divan, the final effect has little punch.

The Proposal easily avoids such problems, churning along with a clipped and measured cadence thanks to superb acting from the suitor Lomov (Scott Richards) and the neighbor Natalya (Nada Despotovich), whom he wishes to wed. The anxious and particular Lomov succeeds unexpectedly with Natalya's father in asking for her hand, but soon everything goes terribly wrong when Lomov falls into a pointless territorial dispute with Natalya before he can propose. As he refuses to abandon principle for pragmatism, the argument degenerates.

Insults fly, and each reveals damning gossip about the other's mother, uncle, best friend and so on. Lomov leaves in a rage only to be called back as soon as Natalya learns of his proposal. But before she can extract his intentions with tender caresses, they devolve to boasting over whose dog is better and end up fighting once more even as they fondle and kiss in prenuptual bliss.

Of the three, A Jubilee is perhaps Chekhov's strongest commentary on his contemporary and infamous Czarist Russian beaurocracy but is produced with only a somewhat relaxed vision of play's satire. The plot has too many threads to relate--most significantly it suggests that social classes were too extremely separated for members of different strata to understand each other. Likewise, women and men played such vastly different social roles they could only poorly and superficially relate.

The result is a confusing mesh of stories and voices, no one listening to the others, but doing everything they can to relate whatever it is they must to get done. The industrious banker has no time to hear of his wife's travels and she won't let him work. The banker's secretary is behind on the acceptance speech he must write for his bosses' recent award (the ceremony is set for that afternoon) and every distraction seems to be the last he can endure.

Soon an orphaned woman arrives to claim compensation for her husband's injuries speaking of "the office of certification" and other nonsensical entities entirely unrelated to any bank, the banker and least of all the stressed secretary. Once again chaos reigns.

By the time the contingent of officials and statesmen arrive to bestow honors on the bank for excellent management and strong returns, the cast is sprawled around the room, too exhausted to carry out their threats to kill one another, and irritated entirely to madness. The final speeches sputter out of steam, dragging on longer than necessary.

Though A Jubilee appears to be but a few twists and turns away from crisp, the broad range of acting and execution still muddles Chekhov's clarity. Audiences greeted his vaudevilles over a century ago with sheer enthusiasm. The Nora's production falls a bit short.

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