Alley Theatre's Collection of Chekhov's Comedies Hampered by Their Presentation in the Round

Todd Waite (Revunov) telling naval stories to an unimpressed audience in The Wedding.
Todd Waite (Revunov) telling naval stories to an unimpressed audience in The Wedding. Photo by Lynn Lane

Little Comedies, playing at the Neuhaus stage of the Alley, brings together a renowned and talented group of theater artists for a show hampered by its choice to present it in the round.

Recognized worldwide for their English translations of classical Russian literature, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, in collaboration with Richard Nelson, translated The Bear, The Proposal, The Wedding, On the Harmfulness of Tobacco and Swan Song — all by Anton Chekhov. Together they are being presented as Little Comedies. Rarely are these short plays performed and this may be the first time these five are performed together as a full evening of theater.
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The cast of Little Comedies with their director, Richard Nelson.
Photo by Lynn Lane
Under Nelson’s direction, Chekov’s gift for wringing the irony of all facets of human interaction and human behavior is on display. The translation’s ability to contribute to the irony by calling attention to the English-speaking (instead of Russian) is a way that even the translation itself seeks to build on Chekhov’s original building blocks.

The choice to have Elizabeth & the Catapult’s “Thank You For Nothing” a pop-folk song, assist with the transitions grounds the production with the sense of everyday people. Each play feels like a brief entrance into the world of real characters at their most “dramatically important,” but even though the scene ends, their lives continue.

This is a series of slice-of-life plays, and satisfaction depends on where you sit.

Since Little Comedies is staged in the round, it’s plagued by the standard issues found in the round. Sometimes, dialogue is unclear due to actors turning their backs away. The lack of a focal point makes it difficult to know which character to follow.

The intention of the production doesn’t seem to be bothered with whether a character stands out. It’s clear that the show is more interested in showcasing the lives and humanity that exists in the world of each play.
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Chris Hutchinson (Ivan) and Elizabeth Bunch (Natalya) arguing over stolen land and family history.
Photo by Lynn Lane

However, the talented artists of this ensemble are unable to have their efforts fully witnessed. In a surprising choice, after intermission, the final two plays are On the Harmfulness of Tobacco and Swan Song which contain three characters in total. A selling point of this production is that the Resident Acting Company is the performing ensemble. The expectation would be more ensemble-centered pieces, yet only one play, The Wedding, showcases the entire cast.

Seated on the South section, Christopher Salazar's (Grigory) face is in complete view for the majority of the act until he turns away with his back for his climactic confession during The Bear. All of the build-up, but none of the release. The same thing happens in the following play with Chris Hutchison (Ivan) in The Proposal.

The audience payoff of witnessing an actor build a full character is removed except for David Rainey (Ivan) in the monologue On the Harmfulness of Tobacco who portrays the full breadth of an unsatisfied, married man whose weaknesses put him at odds with those around him.

When almost every 25 minutes, a new world will be introduced, connecting and empathizing with the characters makes it easier to accept the world, but the sightlines provided by the round structure make it difficult.

Despite the misgivings, this production is smart and thoughtful. It’s intimate and clear. Living is a bittersweet comedy. Human behavior is absurd but always worth it — cConclusions expected from any Chekov play.

However, the staging limits the potential of the piece by hampering its best resource — its actors. Dylan Godwin and Shawn Hamilton are underutilized in their roles. Performances are hidden by obscured turned backs or actors blocking another actor's face.

Its best asset is the particular talent of the ensemble which is ignored for the general conclusions found in all of Chekov.

Performances continue through October 29 at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, and 7 p.m. Sundays. Please check with theater since there are varied times. At the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. For more information, call 713.220-5700 or visit $45-$54.
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Contributor Ada Alozie was a former contributor for Rescripted, an online Chicago arts blog, for two years before moving to Houston and joining the Houston Press team. The majority of her experience in theater comes from her previous work experience as both playwright and director. She has developed work with the Goodman Theatre and Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago. She is, also, a member of the Dramatists Guild.