We Play Chekhov: Two Short Stories on Stage

Breaking String's two-course meal of Chekhov tales proves both meaty and effervescent

Matt Radford as Andrei in The Black Monk
Matt Radford as Andrei in "The Black Monk" (Courtesy of Will Hollis Snider)

Rollins Theatre at the Long Center, 701 Riverside, 512/474-5664
Through Aug. 24
Running time: 2 hr., 30 min.

Chekhov is one of those classic dramatists any self-respecting theatre junkie is expected to know intimately. Yet the iconic playwright was also a celebrated writer of short stories, and it's from that side of Chekhov's brilliant career that Russkie fetishist Breaking String Theatre draws this double bill.

On the surface, "The Black Monk" and "The Beyoncé" (a playful take on "The Fiancée") may seem an odd pairing – indeed, the beefy tale of a scholar's descent into madness is the Bulgogi to the sparkling Lambrusco of a young woman's comic wrestling with her mother and grandmother in the antechamber of her wedding. Yet in both cases, there is more on the tongue than in the nose.

As with the Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Nash, who, at the height of his career, was as schizophrenic as he was brilliant, "The Black Monk"'s Andrei Kovrin (played by the genuinely erudite Matt Radford) juggles university speaking engagements with an alternate reality of supernatural visions. With the world still reeling from Robin Williams' suicide, audience members may find themselves particularly vulnerable to a meditation on the tightrope walked by artists and intellectuals – one that marks a fine line between insanity and inspiration. The fabulous Ia Ensterä thus hits the mark again with an artful set hung with knotted ropes and outlined by a pool of crumpled paper balls. Love letters, bills, deeds to property, party invitations, death certificates – we live our lives on paper, but what does it amount to, really? A rope can kill you in a moment of despair, but it can also bring joy, as it does to children in playground games. Kovrin's mental instability is mostly a problem for other people, as he fiercely claims to be delighted by the apparition of the Black Monk.

Likewise, "The Beyoncé"'s bride-to-be Nadia (the talented and tireless Katy Taylor, who does double duty as "The Black Monk"'s Tatyana) could be happy, if not for the emotional hijacking of her family. Hell truly is other people, and Nadia turns out to be as much of a nonconformist as Kovrin as she bucks the matriarchal system by refusing to play nice in the wedding game. While in "The Black Monk," playwright Kama Ginkas keeps Chekhov's characters rooted in the 19th century, in "The Beyoncé," playwright Eliza Bent does more than tip her hat to contemporary pop culture with a playful title.

Bent has family friend Sasha (Noel Gaulin) become a vegan hipster and Nadia admit her planned honeymoon to Hawaii is less than exotic by calling it total "nerdcore." Although these changes might seem superficial and simplistic in less able hands, Bent is an artist and truly enlivens the source material by giving the burgeoning feminist Nadia a fresh relevance. Katherine Catmull shines as Nadia's neurotic mother, and when her character's intensity vacillates, we can almost guess how much Xanax she has left in the bottle. With Buzz Moran (sound) and Steven Shirey (lights) holding hands and dancing in perfect harmony, this two-course offering has a very satisfying finish.

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We Play Chekhov: Two Short Stories on Stage, Austin theatre, Breaking String Theatre, Kama Ginkas, Eliza Bent, Matt Radford, Noel Gaulin, Katy Taylor, Katherine Catmull, Ia Ensterä, Elias Ensterä, Buzz Moran

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