NAGLE Jackson's farcical The Quick-Change Room captures the immense social and economic upheaval of post-perestroika Russia in the early '90s through a once-renowned St. Petersburg theatre company.
The country is in the middle of a cathartic transition out of the tight grip of communism into a suddenly wide-open, free-enterprise state and the fictional Kuzlov Theatre becomes an amusing microcosm for the necessary evolution into a market-driven operation.
Venerable artistic director Sergey needs to change with the times almost as fast as his actors, who dash into the quick-change room for lightning-fast, between-scenes costume makeovers before racing back on stage.
Shoestring's ChekhovFest offering is an entertaining peek backstage at the petty rivalries, strategic romantic couplings and artistic quarrels that occur at any theatre. Unfortunately, it is not crisply performed or paced. Short scenes sap momentum and comic impact. A couple of actors had to have their lines prompted from backstage. Even the quick changes of the play within the play need to be quicker.
Jackson was the first American to be invited to direct in the Soviet Union and helmed at the Bolshoi Dramatic Theatre in St. Petersburg, so he is familiar with the Russian revolution in theatre after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Most of the fun for ChekhovFest-goers occurs in the second act, when Three Sisters is tarted up in an hilarious attempt to make it a hot ticket.
The Kuzlov is in trouble -- for the first time since 1917 the theatre is not sold out. State support has disappeared as quick as soap for the theatre. Not even a case of windshield wipers, three issues of Hustler magazine and a date with an attractive redhead in the office lathers any seller to give up a few bars.
The traditionalist Sergey soon loses power to box office manager-cum producer Boris, who believes the company must give the public what it wants on stage and plans to stage the capitalist theatre's greatest money-spinner, The Phantom of the Opera, next season. Boris, a well-connected hustler focused on the bottom line, then orders a new musical version of Three Sisters, featuring only two singing-and-dancing siblings but one happy ending.
The change room is where the actors go to change and Nina, finely played by Laura Harrison, undergoes the most significant transition from grateful ingenue to scheming, materialistic starlet in the new order. Rhonda Kennedy Rogers earns some sympathy for the company's long-standing diva, Olga, whose fall in status is far and funny. Jean-Marc Blanc brings the proper artistic outrage to old-school Sergey while Katherine McLennan earns kudos for her portrayal of the lowly wardrobe mistress Maria, who wields mischievous power to cut down the high and mighty who dare to cross her.
Some other cast members could use a stint in a quick-change room.
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Winnipeg actor Rodrigo Beilfuss scampers through the aceart gallery with what is purported to be a bottle of champagne (cider?), stopping to pour glasses for patrons before hitting the makeshift stage of his one-man show, About Love &Champagne.
He begins his monologue with a Russian toast and then says, "It's been a long time since I drank champagne," which just happens to be the last words of Anton Chekhov. Soon Beilfuss brings the subject of his chat around to himself, which might be dismissed as self-indulgent, but his story, and the ease with which it is told, earns audience attention. He relates how he is just back in Winnipeg after earning a graduate degree from the London Academy of Music & Dramatic Art and how one of his teachers offered a humorous assessment of his potential as a romantic lead.
Beilfuss touches only briefly on Chekhov and romance as much of his hour-long talk is about the relationship he struck with the wife of a couple he was living with outside Winnipeg. Beifuss takes the advice of his instructor and presents himself as a tortured romantic figure who has an overheated farewell scene with his forbidden love.
The engaging actor/playwright displays much potential in About Love & Champagne, but it is not worthy of celebration with real bubbly.