A Circle of People: Four by Chekhov | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

A Circle of People: Four by Chekhov 

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Strawdog Theatre Company

Adapting great works of literature for the stage is tough. A text can be so overwhelming that it makes the attempt to dramatize it seem trivial. Or the adapter's vision can steamroll over the literary work. The trick is to bring the work to life onstage without sacrificing any of the author's original intent while satisfying the demands of a different medium. Few people can do it (I was someone who found Steppenwolf's Tony-winning Grapes of Wrath to be a meandering bore). Which is why Shira Piven's A Circle of People: Four by Chekhov at Strawdog Theatre was such a pleasant surprise.

Shira Piven understands how to dramatize her source material and still remain faithful to it. Using just enough of Chekhov's narration and dialogue, Piven is able to capture the themes and the flavor of his works and sometimes to expand upon them. And she leaves to the audience's imagination the settings and atmospheres that accompany Chekhov's stories.

The first act comprises three stories: "After the Theatre," "The Chorus Girl," and "The Dance Pianist." The stories touch upon themes of class distinction, ungratifying relationships, and the despair that is a part of everyday life. In "After the Theatre," Piven takes full advantage of the comic possibilities of a vignette about a young woman, departing from a performance of Eugene Onegin, who longs for unrequited love.

In "The Chorus Girl," the title character is visited by the posh wife of the man with whom she is having an affair and is humiliated for having engaged in a relationship outside her class, even though it is her class that made the relationship unavoidable. "Nikolai Petrovich is an educated refined man, so I made him welcome. We're not allowed to say no," the chorus girl explains. A similar theme is treated in "The Dance Pianist." Pyotr Rublyov, the pianist, is ridiculed by swank party guests for thinking he could associate with them and for drinking their liquor.

Somehow, Piven manages to translate these short short stories into complete, effective stage pieces. Aided by a strong cast of actors and an excellent choice of background music to set the scenes, Piven creates a world of rich characters, compelling themes, and dramatically charged moments. Although the adaptations are marred somewhat by questionably choreographed dance sequences and rather pompous choral reading, Piven expertly dramatizes the stories.

But it is in act two, working with a longer and more complex story, that Piven truly brings this evening of Chekhov to life. "The House With the Mansard (An Artist's Story)" is the tale of a complacent landscape painter who lives his life in "perpetual idleness" until he loses in love and gains the soul of an artist.

The story deals primarily with the painter's frequent visits to the Volchaninov house, where he encounters the sweet, carefree Zhenya, her severe, politically active sister Lidia, and their mother Yekaterina, who is intimidated by Lidia's intelligence and beauty. As a fondness grows between the painter and Zhenya, a tension develops with Lidia, who has no patience for a man who wastes time painting landscapes. And eventually, Zhenya is taken far away from the painter by Yekaterina, who cannot resist the wishes of her daughter Lidia.

The cast of "The House With the Mansard" is excellent. Paul Quinn's painter is a brilliant sympathetic portrayal. Anne Hubbard in the role of Lidia is thoroughly believable and engaging. And Rebecca Tennison and Adele Robbins as Zhenya and Yekaterina give completely honest performances. There is not a wrong note sounded during the entire play. What is most exciting about watching this play is that with the most minimal of sets, Piven and her actors create a beautiful, clearly visible landscape of green lawns, croquet mallets, and summer breezes.


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