Amanda Campbell in her blog TWISI: The Way I See It Theatre Blog reviews Tiny Vaudevilles. Read ‘The Zuppa Sillies & Chekhov Vaudevilles” below or at TWISI.
Anton Chekhov, perhaps most well known for his doleful Three Sisters who never make it to Moscow and his Cherry Orchard that never gets saved, always insisted that his plays were meant to be comedies. If you are skeptical, I strongly encourage you to attend Zuppa Theatre’s Tiny Vaudevilles: Two Short Plays by Anton Chekhov, which brings elements from Vaudeville, The Muppet Show and past Zuppa show scores together with two of Chekhov’s lesser known plays The Bear (1888) and A Marriage Proposal (1890). The shenanigans run to May 11th at The Music Room in Halifax.
The Bear and A Marriage Proposal are known as Chekhov’s “Farce Vaudevilles” and were both very lucrative and popular with audiences during his lifetime. The translation of these plays in the hands of Sue Leblanc-Crawford, Ben Stone and Stewart Legere has a distinctly modern quality to it and seems as custom built for their various personalities within the company as any of the plays that they have devised themselves. Legere drinks real vodka onstage, as his characters are called toward the drink in the plays, and the audience is encouraged to purchase their own at the bar to drink along. This gives the show a sense of danger, as Legere becomes more and more prone to fits of giggles and ad libs as the evening progresses. Yet, within the framework of these plays, and the Cabaret-style musical interludes and Vaudeville schtick borrowed from the Muppets, the real magic tends to erupt when Legere deviates from the script and it keeps the room alive and pulsating in common time, which can be rare during productions of 125 year old Russian plays.
These two “Farce Vaudevilles” are especially funny because they seem to be written by Chekhov as a parody of the theatrical style that he is most well known for writing. In the same way, Leblanc-Crawford, Stone and Legere spend much of the evening pastiching their own Zuppa personas- in both cases bringing something that can be perceived as being lofty, intellectual and even in Chekhov’s case, solemn, far closer to the Absurd. Tiny Vaudevilles is a pure celebration of silliness for silliness’ sake. The cherry on the Zuppa sundae is definitely Legere and Stone performing the classic Vaudeville sketch “Slowly I Turn” at the very end of the evening, in which Stone antagonizes the young (and by this time quite tipsy) Legere to the merry delight of all. Tiny Vaudevilles reminds us that regardless of how beautiful the poetics of language, the intelligence and poignance of ideas and the depth of character, there is something innate in all of us that loves to watch the clown slip on the banana peel or pie the straight man in the face.
The Music Room provides an ideal space for Tiny Vaudevilles because the audience is in close proximity to the action, and especially when the company uses the real door to the outside of the theatre, one gets the immediate feeling of being transported to the wealthy widow’s estate at the turn of the 20th Century. This, along with the Drink-Along, “wink-wink-nudge-nudge” ambiance creates a sense of collusion between the actors and the audience. It is not just Legere, Stone and Leblanc-Crawford who are acting out these shenanigans, we are all complicit in the merrymaking as well.
There are moments in the play that are clearly scripted but are supposed to appear improvised where there is room for Leblanc-Crawford and Stone to settle in more comfortably with their impromptu banter with one another and the audience, as it can come across as a little forced or performative at times. Leblanc-Crawford also gave a preamble before the show saying that although she the actor is noticeably pregnant, her characters are not supposed to be pregnant and I wondered why she would make this clarification as in both cases, as the mourning recent widow and the farmer’s daughter desperate to wed, a pregnancy would only raise the stakes in both plays. It seemed like a missed opportunity to make use of a significant aspect of what is really happening in the room that the audience and actors are sharing and experiencing together and to add an extra stamp of uniqueness to this rendition of these specific Chekhov plays.
In all, prepare to giggle and guffaw with glee. Tiny Vaudevilles is a crowd pleaser and it’s shamelessly euphoric in its own ability to charm.