By Special Guest Writer: Dave Rabjohn
Durham Shoestring Performers’ website suggests “a desire to create a few theatrical waves.” This was artfully accomplished Friday night at the Arts Resource Centre with only the second production of Canadian playwright Mansel Robinson’s dark comedy "Picking Up Chekhov". It was a bold production of staccato timing and emotional twists.
The audience was greeted with a boldly stylized set, designed and created by Melanie Baker. The Rorschach-themed set flowed from the walls onto even the sparse furniture. It was an inspired idea with self analysis everywhere in the play. It constantly reminded the audience, as mentioned by director John Lunman, that audience engagement and interpretation is key to this experience.
Quickly demonstrated was an ensemble cast with a wide range of experience and style. What stood out though, was the youth of this cast. This was best personified by Jazz Elektra Watson – the self-absorbed daughter who yearns for fame and acceptance. She showed a wide range of acting, including various dialects and accents, as she transitioned smoothly through a variety of seemingly disjointed scenes. She waltzed through the set (and relationships) with more self-confidence than precociousness. I’m sure the gifted group of more veteran actors such as Chris Francom and Douglas Cravenserved as worthy mentors, but I could almost hear the whispers of the young actors thinking, “ok, ok, I’ve got this.”
Matt Brankston ‘s portrayal of the hard-living, almost doting father was convincing – the three day beard a nice touch for the burly, but not quite cuddly dad. Jennie Archambault had the unenviable task of pulling together the disparate scenes almost as a narrator, highlighted by a moving final speech that was punctuated by a muted anger as she crashed through the lobby doors.
This production was thoroughly enriched by the “friends” and “teens” who lit up the stage with a variety of minor (and memorable) characters. Noteworthy was young Jarek Landori-Hoffman as the angry postman and Natasha Noble as the peasant-dressed self-mocking drama teacher. But the audience favourite (myself included) was the many turns by Despina Melohe. Her gum-smacking sexually frustrated waitress was a delight as was the pent up angry librarian. Most fun though was the homage to Ruth Buzzi and her lethal purse (google it kids!)
As mentioned by the director, the play is not very much about Anton Chekhov, the great Russian playwright. But there are undercurrents. It was once said by Maxim Gorki- “I think that in Anton Chekhov’s presence everyone felt in himself a desire to be simple, more truthful, more one’s self.” Douglas Craven’s portrayal amounted to this claim – his character, especially near the end, worked hard to mend relationships, to bind generations, and to seek truth. Director Lunman somehow found that balance between playwright Chekhov’s “underplayed tragedy” and the swirling colour of Robinson’s characters.
This production found the extraordinary underneath the ordinary and the actors somehow rose above the various clichés. To Carolyn Wilson and the Durham Shoestring Performers I say keep the waves coming – and the future looks bright.