It was an unhappy but instructive moment for Andrew Paul. The Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre artistic director was in another city, watching a production of Three Sisters, by his favorite playwright, Anton Chekhov. But the show was "deadly dull." Late in the play, when one sister said, "I am so bored," Paul recalls, "the whole audience started applauding."
"That," Paul says, "is how not to do Chekhov."
Noting that Chekhov himself called all his plays "comedies," Paul is taking a fresh tack in PICT's five-week Chekhov Celebration. The focus is on plays Paul considers misunderstood or underproduced.
The festival opens July 19 with Three Sisters, directed by Philadelphia-based Harriet Power and starring PICT regulars Nike Doukas and Allison McLemore. Paul says a good staging digs deep into the characters, including the titular siblings marooned in the provinces. "You really feel like you've read a dense novel when you've seen a good production of Three Sisters," he says.
Still, Paul's coup in reframing Chekhov might be PICT's U.S. premiere of famed playwright Tom Stoppard's new translation of Ivanov. It's early Chekhov (1889), and little known; Paul can't recall the last time it was produced in Pittsburgh, but praises its "wild energy."
The play concerns a rural landowner who bankrupts his estate, and whose wife is dying of TB — and it, too, is comic. "The play is full of life and so funny, you almost forget how tragic it is," says Paul, who'll direct the show, featuring PICT favorites David Whalen and Helena Ruoti.
Meanwhile, instead of classics like The Cherry Orchard or The Seagull, the festival offers Funny Chekhov, a program of five seldom-produced one-act comedies. "The Bear," for instance, concerns a woman mourning her adulterous husband, and her relationship with the neighbor to whom he owned money. "The Proposal" depicts a young man trying, and failing, to woo a neighbor's daughter. Other titles include "Drama: A Comedy."
Completing the festival are two one-acts by Brian Friel, the famed Irish playwright and Chekhov acolyte. "The Yalta Game" adapts Chekhov's famous short story "The Lady With the Lapdog," while "Afterplay" depicts Sonya and Andrey — characters from Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters who meet in Moscow 30 years later, played by Ruoti and Martin Giles.