From Russia With Laughs

From Russia With Angst, the new production from the WorkShop Theater Company, takes on one of the theater’s all-time greats – Anton Chekhov. Rather than reviving one of Chekhov’s oft-done dramatic works, the company instead chose to adapt five of his short stories for the stage, reimagining them in the context of our twenty-first century world. The result is a joyous, thought-provoking, modern re-envisioning of these classic stories, one that speaks directly to the times in which we live. The performance is broken down into five vignettes, each using a different story as its source. “Death of a Government Worker,” adapted by Jonathan Pereira and directed by Katrin Hilbe, centers around a man who cannot seem to bring himself to ask his government employer for the raise which he, his wife, and his newborn, enormous son desperately need. Instead, he finds himself consistently sneezing, spitting on, or otherwise mistreating his important, albeit potentially shady, boss. The piece is dark and humorous, and honors the poetry of Chekhovian writing. The story arc, which slowly but surely unveils the possibility of corruption within this regime, rings true in a modern world. The scene is most effective when it is least realistic; its true beauty lies in its stylized moments.

The next scene, “We’ll Take a Cup of Kindness Yet,” written by Scott C. Sickles and directed by David Gautschy, takes us back to New Year’s Eve 2000. We meet a Central Park carriage driver attempting to pick up some fares and confronting the pain of the recent loss of his young son. This scene is perhaps the least powerful of the five – it lacks either the acerbic wit or the overwhelming social relevance that the other scenes have in bounty. Still, it is moving and sad, a solid reflection on the difficulties of human connections in a world motivated by rapid advancements.

“Joy,” by Robert Strozier and directed by Elena Araoz, focuses on a young girl who has found recent Internet “fame” on YouTube. She comes home gushing to her parents about a video of her singing topless on a table at a party which was filmed and recently released for broadcast on the popular website. This scene is the most overtly hilarious; Sutton Crawford, who portrays the young Ginger, is appropriately shameless and charming in her description of the video’s contents. Joseph Franchini and Carrie Edel Isaacman could remind any viewer of his/her father and mother, alternately supportive and embarrassed, depending on the moment.

Timothy Scott Harris’s “In Country,” which he also directed, is the most dramatic of the scenes. It starts out as a humorous interlude about a middle-aged woman being set up on a date by her father with a man he met in a bar. However, this seemingly innocent encounter ends up revealing much more than just an attraction between the two. The man, Steve, is grieving a son who died in Iraq, leading to questions of what exactly American ideals are in this day and age, what it is to be American, and what precisely it is that one fights for in this country.

The final scene, a condensed five-act play entitled “Misery, Apathy, and Despair,” is the true gem of the evening. John McKinney has done a brilliant job incorporating various references to Chekhov’s dramatic works into a parody that is both effective and hilarious. Richard Kent Green’s direction is reminiscent of so many Chekhov parlor dramas, grounding the piece as a Russian period piece and then subverting the genre. The piece is charming and witty, being both true to the storylines of Chekhov\'s plays and honest to the sorts of reactions audiences often have to these works.

From Russia With Angst provides a wonderful night’s entertainment. The only aspect of the production that did not quite work was the projections between scenes, displaying text from the original Chekhov story and then from the impending adaptation. Although it was interesting to compare the two, I am not sure what this device added to the overall presentation. However, this is a truly minor comment in light of this enjoyable and compelling work of theater. Chekhov is alive and well in this play, if a little reconfigured.

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