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Playwrights pick up Chekhov mantle

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Logan Stefanson, left, as Casimir and Natasha Durand as Clair in Aristocrats.

GARRETT RUSNAK PHOTO Enlarge Image

Logan Stefanson, left, as Casimir and Natasha Durand as Clair in Aristocrats.

Brian Friel earned the title "the Irish Chekhov" for the way he chronicled broken hearts and unfulfilled lives among the peat bogs.

Friel adapted several of the Russian master's plays but Aristocrats is his own work; it will draw comparisons to Tracy Letts' dysfunctional family drama August: Osage County. It is only right that ChekhovFest should include Friel and through an entertaining production of Aristocrats, the University of Manitoba's Black Hole Theatre company makes clear the close kinship between the two playwrights.

In the fictitious Donegal village of Ballybeg, the Catholic O'Donnell clan gather for the first time in over a decade to celebrate daughter Clare's marriage of convenience. Their stately, but now crumbling, home known as The Big House -- which we're told, with a touch of the blarney, once welcomed the likes of Yeats and O'Casey -- has been a prison for the three sisters and one brother. All have been on the lam, except dutiful Judith, who has remained behind to take care of their domineering father, a once-important area judge who's now incontinent and irrational. Their actress mother got away by committing suicide.

The rest of the siblings have taken different escape routes: Alice into booze; Casimir into self-delusion; and Clair into her music, which she can be heard playing much of the time on the piano. Another daughter, Ann, is a nun living in Africa. Also on the scene is the brash Eamon, who married Alice but loved Judith, and cheerful (because he is not an O'Donnell) local Willie, who also is carrying a torch for long-suffering Judith.

It all feels very Chekhovian, except for the awkward presence of fish-out-of-water Tom, an American researcher who's looking for insights into a disappearing way of life, but who ends up being a witness to it. This creation allows Friel to flesh out more background information about the Irish Catholic aristocracy.

Most of the 135-minute drama, which occasionally drags, takes place outside around the mansion's garden gazebo, surrounded on the Gas Station Theatre stage by a wide swath of green plastic turf. It's there that long-unspoken truths and grand fictions collide. The dying father is only briefly seen, but his presence is sensed constantly through a baby monitor that captures his ranting. Just hearing that voice again instantly chills his offspring.

The main attraction of Aristocrats is the impressive performance of Logan Stefanson as Casimir, who has become disconnected from the world around him. His fascinating portrayal is so elaborate, with every tic and step effortlessly integrated. You can't take your eyes off this strange duck, whether he's playing imaginary croquet or positioning lawn chairs as if he were on the Titanic.

The wounded sisters pale next to Casimir, but their pain is palpable. Jeysa Martinez-Pratt's bruised Alice drinks so much that audience members were heard wishing for their own glass of Jameson. Natashia Durand successfully mines Clair's heartbreak, while Sydney Wiebe's Judith conveys uncomplaining servitude. As Eamon, Brandon Vink is solid.

Director Bill Kerr excavates Friel's end-of-an-era wistfulness and melancholy humour in Aristocrats, which ends on an un-Chekhovian note of hope.

-- -- --

The American playwright Neil Simon was a great admirer of Anton Chekhov's short stories, which he chose to dramatize for a Broadway run in 1970s.

Since his silent partner was a medical doctor and Simon's lifelong nickname was Doc, he titled his evening of short sketches The Good Doctor.

A first-time entry in the Master Playwright Festival, the Broken Record Productions troupe presents eight pieces, introduced by the genial Chekhov himself.

Even with the combined comic talents of the two playwrights, not all the scenes earn more than a few chuckles. The Sneeze grows tiresome, as an underling in the department of trees and bushes apologizes and apologizes for sneezing all over his superior, seated in front him at the theatre. The Governess is even less funny, as a mean-spirited parent finds every excuse to reduce the amount she must pay her meek employee.

The first-half closer The Seduction combines clever storytelling with a humorous flair. It introduces a Lothario renowned for seducing other men's wives. He is so good he manipulates the unsuspecting husbands to do his wooing for him. It's the acting highlight for the game eight-member cast, who were well-prepared but could not always make the most of the material.

kevin.prokosh@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 29, 2014 C3

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