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Chekhov, Rocky Horror style

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The three sisters are a, um, stunning presence in Kristine Nutting's play.

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The three sisters are a, um, stunning presence in Kristine Nutting's play.

No need to be worried being unfamiliar with Chekhov's Three Sisters will hinder your understanding of this supposed musical version.

Despite its claim to be based on the Russian playwright's masterpiece, Kristine Nutting's Three Sisters: A Black Opera in Three Acts possesses only a tenuous connection -- it opens on the same May 5 date and focuses on a trio of female siblings yearning to escape to the big city. That's it. At best, it's a ChekhovFest sideshow starring white-faced cannibal clowns and a drag queen gone missing from a production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

All that offensive sexual content and language finds a more fitting stage in the no-frills bar of the St. Boniface Hotel. where 18-and-over spectators can enjoy their beer with a chaser of raunch. Check your theatrical expectations at the door and be ready to see the entertaining freaks come out to sing and dance and offend.

Nutting's sordid tale finds the young Cuddy sisters wasting away on the family farm in Biggar, Sask., where their daddy has become their mommy. Apparently, they grow their cross-dressers bigger on the Prairies. The towering Mommy-Daddy (an impressive Jeff Strome) is a striking, stilettoed figure with a shaved head and bare chest, his large frame covered only by tighty whities, garter belt, red fishnet stockings and a blue peignoir.

Mommy/Daddy has not been paying the mortgage on the farm and, facing foreclosure, decides to auction off his most valuable possessions, his pork-loving, rubber-booted daughters. Black-eyed Olga (Jacqueline Harding) is reputed to be the ugliest girl in town, her looks marred even further by the clothes pegs she attaches to her lips. Maggie (Dorothy Carroll) is desperate to escape to Canada's cultural capital Edmonton to become a dancer for Lawrence Welk and trades sexual favours for the money to bankroll the trip. Virginal baby sister Pax (Anna-Laure Koop) is the object of desire of both the dastardly bank manager (David Arial) and her good-hearted neighbour Billy (Kristian Jordan), who gives her a pig's hoof as a token of his undying affection.

The tawdry goings-on are sprinkled with rude but funny songs and the writhings of the short-dressed sisters who prowl the bar long before the 75-minute musical begins. The singing is more than passable by an all-in cast, whose proficiency on the numerous musical instruments has its weak moments.

Nutting follows Chekhov's classic recipe directions to mix heaping amounts of humour and tragedy in his plays but adds her own go-big-or-go-home seasonings that never produce good taste. Director Andraea Sartison brings all that weirdness together into a bloody and vomit-filled third act that achieves a body count higher than all of Chekhov's plays put together.

If the ennui of too many Chekhov plays has permeated your soul, a farm visit to Biggar will offer a ghoulish jolt out of your mid-winter blahs.

Chekhov & Me follows the rambling mind of a writer desperate to find inspiration for a new play.

Jimmy returns to his desk with a gun -- Anton Chekhov's playwriting mantra demands if a dramatist brings a gun on stage, it must be fired -- that might point the way through his clogged imagination.

He talks to a photograph of his Russian mentor, hoping he can help him discover a muse who can "whisper sweet dramaturgical nothings in my ear."

In his one-man show, Winnipeg's Mike Bell accompanies his audience through a free-associating mind that is pinballing from memory to idea to useless piece of trivia. Whether Bell's stand-in, Jimmy, is recalling childhood memories of killing Nazis as comic book hero Sgt. Rock or spotting a ghost at the old fringe festival Venue 8, they inevitably lead him to think of classic TV sitcoms, after which he must list all the spinoff shows they generated. Are we witnessing Jimmy's road to creativity or a traitorous act of procrastination? Should we care, because as Jimmy realizes, no one cares about the process, just the product.

James Durham is a genial guide through the inner workings of creativity and how the roadblocks can seem insurmountable. It's not a loud, showy performance but one that rewards attention. How much a viewer remembers classic television will enhance the experience of Chekhov & Me, which was commissioned by Theatre Projects Manitoba in 2006.

Bell/Jimmy does follow Chekhov's gun rule with an ironic twist that triggers a playwriting breakthrough.

kevin.prokosh@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 3, 2014 D3

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