L. A. WEEKLY – PICK OF THE WEEK
Reviewed By: Deborah Klugman
You don’t have to be a Chekhov aficionado to appreciate this entertaining and clever mock-up of his art. Directed by Dan O’Connor, the evening’s humor derives from a savvy and seasoned ensemble who specialize in fashioning a unique, full-length parody for each performance. Rather than a detailed lampooning of The Cherry Orchard or The Three Sisters, the ensemble fashions its own harebrained plot, hewing closely to the motifs — such as unrequited love and longing — that mark Chekhov’s plays. The evening I attended, the story revolved around a Russian family with two daughters: Anya (Patty Wortham), lovesick and insufferably cheerful, and Olga (Edi Patterson), who languishes in the dumps while a bevy of suitors — including her sister’s fiancé — vie for her favor. Meanwhile, a host of termites attack their father’s (Brian Lohmann) walnut grove, precipitating their estate’s demise. Not every scene works equally well, of course, but in general the laughs are plentiful and hearty. Paul Rogan steals pretty much every scene he’s in as the daft and nerdy schoolmaster betrothed to Olga, and Lisa Fredrickson is spot-on as the family’s officious matriarch.
STAGE AND CINEMA
Reviewed By: Jason Rohrer
The most authentic and thoughtful staging of Anton Chekhov I’ve experienced in America didn’t use any Chekhov script you’ve read or seen performed or ever will see. This Impro Theatre one-night-only production of “Serfs in the Field” was improvised over two acts’ relaxed mastery, nimbly directed, sublimely performed, and – I want to emphasize – written all in real time, in front of a live audience. Beginning with nothing more than a setting suggested by a playgoer less than a minute before lights-up, the play (and it surely deserves the name) remained from first to last rich with symbol and theme. It understood and communicated the essence of Anton Chekhov’s oevre in a manner few outside of Eastern Europe could emulate. It featured such well-drawn characters and intricate relationships that I later begged the actors to confess that they had predetermined, if not what story to tell, at least whom each would play.
Such is the nature of improv. A traditional play may suffer from an actor’s bad night or a missed lighting cue, but give or take a flubbed line or late entrance the script will remain unchanged. An improvised play can add writing to its potential fluctuations in quality. But it must also be said, and emphatically, that good improvisation has the potential to startle and amaze to a degree uncommon in any medium.
To those unfamiliar with off-the-cuff performance not centered around comedy, Impro Theatre will appear revelatory. The company owes its reserved, almost stately approach to an ethos more interested in creating literature than in telling jokes. Not that it’s not funny. Shows have a lot of laughs, but they’re in service of story and character. How many playwrights of the modern schools could benefit from this restraint? All of them.
And how many actors could learn lessons in moment-to-moment onstage life from watching these committed players, many of whom have been working together for twenty years? Same answer. The ideal nature of an improviser is to be awake to the possibility of each circumstance. These Impro people trust each other, and they listen. They come together to collaborate, not to showboat but to assist one another in the process of art. It’s reassuring to the soul to see humans investing so fully in a concept larger than themselves.
I laughed and wept at the Chekhov – again, I’ve rarely seen a company so thoroughly comprehend the bizarre hyperreality of this writer’s universe. This is a great show for anyone who thinks he hates Chekhov, or that he’s boring or “serious.” Like any piece of art, it’s probably an even better show for someone who’s studied the source.
Much improvisation suffers from a resemblance to self-congratulatory masturbation, and Impro Theatre will always escape this label primarily due to that laudable tendency not to pander for laughs. But unevenness will dog its performances as long as it mines resources of such unequal value. This company, in its quest to make art from the air, brings to its work a meta-perspective that simultaneously invents, analyzes, praises, and riffs. Impro Theatre has performed “Shakespeare UnScripted” and “Jane Austen Unscripted,” among others; it has steeped itself in the idiom of its source materials so thoroughly that the Chekhov’s first act ended with a well-foreshadowed yet still shocking event. The second act ended with most of the characters completing the circular arcs their natures demand, while one or two veered off in more optimistic directions.
I’m seeing this as many times as I can before its run ends.