Los Angeles Theater Review: CHEKHOV UNSCRIPTED (Impro Theatre at The Lab on Vermont)

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by Jason Rohrer on May 22, 2015

in Theater-Los Angeles

THE CRAGS OF DELIVERANCE

If bad reviews are the flattest line my pen can draw, a steppe of the imagination that writes its unsurprising self, a good review is the Caucasus. To critique Impro Theatre requires ice boots spiked with inked nibs. Frankly I’ve become fearful of seeing this company scale the heights of artistry, especially in the category closest to my taste and passion: their two-act inventions based on the oeuvre of Anton Pavlovich Chekhov. This is only because all idols must fall, and when Impro falls in my esteem it will have a long way to go. My heart will go down with it. Chekhov incidentally died at my present age; Impro cannot kill him, but while from a logistical perspective the bad review will be easier to write, in the event, emotionally I will be flattened.

Last weekend I was more afraid than usual, because I had brought with me an intimidating director currently rehearsing a Chekhov play. If she didn’t like the show, I would think less of her; and if I didn’t like the show either, not only she but I would think less of me too. Nothing is more unimpressive than misplaced enthusiasm, and she had heard much from me on the excellence of the troupe.

To impress her, I had shamelessly mentioned (and expanded perhaps beyond the bounds of fact) the recent triumph of my lectures at a university, where I described Impro as an exemplar of the direction American theater ought to go. A European scholar and practitioner, this director is not easily impressed, and I have pretensions to a similar reputation. But her judgment of my judgment was important to both of us for reasons not entirely professional. Impro’s success this night was of urgent importance to my own.

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The company takes an athletic route with authors and genres – including Sondheim, Austen, Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, Twilight Zone, The Western – and improvises live stage plays based on associated themes and fascinations. It is a terrifying risk at the best of times, and the more profound the source material, the more powerful the product. Of course, I have my favorites among these spectacular writer/performers. And last Saturday night, artistic director Dan O’Connor took stage with two other artists I trusted – Nick Massouh and Kelly Holden-Bashar – but also with three others I did not know. The trepidation mounted.

My worries compounded: any goodwill I might have among the company would surely be compromised by my date’s request that the air conditioning be turned off. A small fatless creature, she shivers in the noonday sun, where normal humans sweat; soon the theater resembled an evangelical church, or a tree full of butterflies waking in the dawn: flap flap, flap flap went the programs all around us. Onstage, some of them in three-piece period costume, the performers (in my mind) cursed the critic who’d brought the entitled foreigner. In point of observable fact, via the audience-suggested title The Old Dry Well, they did like so:

Young assistant professor O’Connor, at his family’s country home for a visit to his vain, alcoholic sister (Kari Coleman) and her scheming failure of a husband (Massouh), introduced his impetuous niece (Holden-Bashar) to two newlywed friends from Moscow: a seductive author (Daniel Blinkoff) and a fickle, restless beauty (Amy Kidd). Kidd had grown up with O’Connor and Massouh, and long been the object of their affection; for Coleman, Kidd’s visit came as from a threatening rival.

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O’Connor’s unrequited love, and Blinkoff’s callous abscondment with Holden-Bashar’s dewy ingenue; the 80 year old estate manager’s (again, Blinkoff’s) disdain for employer Massouh’s incompetence, and his complicity in his mistress’s not-so-secret drinking bouts; Coleman’s superficially arbitrary physicality that dovetailed with brutal elegance into situation and mode; Holden-Bashar’s shocking desire to go to Moscow, and her thoughtful return; Kidd’s soulful plucking of a pressed flower’s sad petals; O’Connor’s dissertations on the utility of work vs inaction, and the counterpoint in Blinkoff’s and Massouh’s self-aggrandizing rationalizations; the descents into madness, the rejuvenations and the dissolutions, the thematic cycles: all reflected like moonlight from the cliffs of Chekhov’s towering massif.

Okay, the metaphor got away. But that’s what happens when I try to write about the essence of a lifetime’s genius, purely distilled in the bodies and minds of artists who dare to write and perform in real time, before an audience singularly fortunate, for the shoutingly funny, quietly moving show they see will never again create itself until the end of time. The critic is wiser who limits himself to recounting the impressions of a better-educated companion, and mine reacted to the show with extreme approval. In the absence of props and set text, she found Impro’s achievement not only thrilling and enjoyable but true to the spirit of the Russian master she and Impro serve.

I hope this review will placate Impro. Certainly they have paid me well, by impressing my world-weary friend such that I am typing this review, now several days late, from the sanctity of her apartment. My geography affords no greater praise nor pride of place.

photos courtesy of Impro Theatre

Chekhov UnScripted
Impro Theatre
The Lab on Vermont in Los Feliz Village
1727 N. Vermont Ave., #208
Fri and Sat at 8; Sun at 4
ends on May 31, 2015
for tickets, call (323) 401-6162 or visit www.ImproTheatre.com

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