At the Mady Centre for the Performing Arts, Barrie, Ontario. Written by Anton Chekhov. Translated by Michael Frayn. Directed by Marti Maraden. Designed by Nicholas Blais. Musician Aidan Keeley. Starring: Nigel Bennett, Lucy Peacock, and Brian Tree.
Produced by Talk is Free Theatre. Plays at the Mady Centre for the Performing Arts until December 7.
When Anton Chekhov, Russian writer extraordinaire, wasn’t writing short stories or plays or essays, or articles, he would make copious notes of thoughts that occurred to him, which would later become short stories, plays, articles etc.
The Sneeze is a wonderful evening of eight short plays in which all but one started its life as a short story. In Act I we have Drama in which a celebrated writer must endure the prattling of a silly woman who has come to him to read her over-long, over-written story, seeking his approval. The Alien Corn is a dinner between a landowner and his snooty, former French tutor, and how the landowner gets even for the snootiness. Plots involves a general practitioner who is hoping for an exalted position, and is proud of knowing where all the skeletons are hidden of the people who are going to judge him. The Bear is the only play that was originally written as a play, which Chekhov called a vaudeville. A woman has been in mourning for a year. She is visited by a boorish man she refers to as a ‘bear’, in which he wants to collect on her late husband’s outstanding debt. She doesn’t have the money. He doesn’t care. It escalates from there.
Act II begins with The Evils of Tobacco, an exquisite piece of writing about a sad man, henpecked almost to disappearing by his harping, bullying wife. He is giving a talk as part of a lecture series on the evils of tobacco, but can’t get away from the fact that his wife is always on his mind, and not in a loving, comfortable way.
In The Inspector General a new Inspector General is making a surprise visit to one of the towns in his domain, and finds that the townspeople, represented by the Cart Driver taking him there, have him all figured out, without ever having met him. It’s an eye-opening experience.
Swan Song is a heart-squeezing little play about an old time actor who has lost his nerve and confidence and seeks solace from the prompter of the acting company where they both work.
And finally The Sneeze. Two couples are at a music event. A very senior government official and his wife sit in front, and behind them are a very minor government official and his wife. The very minor government official is overcome by a sneeze, which he lets hurl, before he can stop it with a handkerchief. Much of the play is the minor government trying to wipe the bald head of the very senior government official.
Chekhov has that perfect writer’s eye that can look into the heart and soul of his characters and plum their emotional depths as well as show us their foibles. He can be ironic, witty, thoughtful, and always generous. We don’t really laugh at these people but we do laugh at their situations. And no one can create a poignant moment with such spareness and tenderness like Chekhov.
The depth, humour and sobering moments are beautifully realized by the gifted cast, Nigel Bennett, Lucy Peacock and Brian Tree, and their equally gifted director, Marti Maraden. With imagination and ingenuity the cast of three illuminate the hidden heartaches or impish glee of their characters.
With Lucy Peacock that meant playing both men and women’s parts. As the widow in The Bear she is initially appalled at this boor of a bear of a man who has clomped into her home demanding she pay her late husband’s debt to him. But this ire gives way to something else after a while and that imperious woman becomes coy, flirty and alive for the first time in a long time.
Later in Swan Song, a heart-squeezer of a play, Peacock plays an aged actor who feels he is washed up and that his time with the company is coming to an end. He is shown compassion and gentle support and encouragement from the company prompter, equally as old and frail as the actor. Kindness among characters is also a Chekhov trait.
The men are equally as accomplished. In Drama, Brian Tree plays a celebrated and busy writer who is coerced into seeing a woman who wants to read him her latest tomb, a dreary ordeal that the writer tries to handle with politeness, when he isn’t writhing and falling asleep. Tree has courtliness, a cool formality until he looses his temper with stunning results.
In The Evils of Tobacco, Tree plays a hapless character, henpecked and harangued by his wife. She runs a school for girls and he does all the drudge work. Occasionally he gives lectures as on this occasion, on the evils of tobacco. But he gets off topic easily because he is always waiting for his wife to pounce with another tirade. Tree gives a performance of a man with small movements; a tug at his formal coat to straighten it; a subtle look around for his wife; a pause before he can even say the word ‘wife’. It’s a performance full of the ticks and body language of an unsure, insecure man. Tree also gives a gripping performance of a man who diminishes in front of us. It is both funny and sad, and beautifully done.
And in The Sneeze, which is totally silent and all the action mimed, Tree plays the poor minor government official who lets out a huge sneeze then spends the rest of the time trying to wipe the resultant goop off the head of the senior government official in front of him. Peacock plays his wife and both have a good laugh at the officials’ expense.
The senior official is played by Nigel Bennett, imperious, elegant, courtly and fussy. In The Bear Bennett plays the bull-dozing man who marches into the house demanding his money; being exasperated by this annoying woman, and just as subtly changing from an angry man to a man who is brought to his knees by this intriguing woman.
Bennett is equally as effusive as the general practitioner in Plots who is preparing for a hearing to see if he is elevated to a higher position, while gleefully pointing out the foibles of the people who are hearing his case. It’s a performance full of energy, good natured arrogance, and an equally as dramatic comeuppance.
Director Mari Maraden realizes the wit and subtleties in the stories, with economy and a certain amount of daring. There are four characters in The Sneeze but only three actors in the cast. Maraden and her designer, Nicholas Blais solved the problem in an inventive, hilarious way.
Maraden also knows how to position the various plays for the best effect. There is sensitivity and a keen sense of how to bring out the humour in this solid evening of entertainment, by a gifted cast of a master story-telling-playwright.
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