Here’s a question for all you Anton Chekhov fans out there. Which among these plays ran only one performance: The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, The Lake, or The Cherry Orchard? Need a hint? Its one and only performance took place on Wednesday, October 17, at the Odyssey Theatre in West Los Angeles.

The answer should be obvious to anyone who’s caught a Tennessee Williams, William Shakespeare, Stephen Sondheim, or Jane Austen opus as improvised entirely from scratch by the ad-lib geniuses who call themselves Impro Theatre, currently presenting Chekhov Unscripted (and the previously reviewed Twilight Zone Unscripted) in glorious repertory.

Inspired by a single audience suggestion, The Lake featured the following characters, seen once and never to return again except in the memories of those in attendance the night before last.

Pyotr (Paul Rogan), a tall English-accented gentleman often caught in the midst of a conversation with himself. When Irina (Edi Patterson) calls him on this, reminding him that there are many people in the house to speak with, he replies, “But there is nobody … French. French is so bella,” a turn of phrase which prompts an astonished Irina to respond, “You use an Italian word to describe French?” Since Pyotr is the ultimate Francophile, news that Mikhail (Michael Manuel) is soon to return from Paris is musique to Pyotr’s ears. As for the pitiful lake view, poor Pyotr can’t understand why the others are so satisfied with it. “Don’t you want to see more than this, to look upon the lake and see Versailles?”

Maxim (Dan O’Connor), a visitor to Irina’s family’s lakeside estate, finds himself the object of Pyotr’s disdain. “You are almost one of us,” Pyotr tells Maxim, then goes on to mock his attempts at poetry, an act of disrespect which Irina would never think of committing  It’s no wonder, then, that Maxim seems enamored of her, though the object of his affection seems scarcely to know he’s alive. “Thank goodness it’s just you,” she tells Pyotr at one point, then corrects herself: “I’m sorry, I meant only you.” Sadly, when the would-be writer attempts to create an extemporaneous poem for his beloved, it ends up ending with the word “giraffe.” In fact, the only thing Maxim and Irina have in common is that neither can find any reason to keep on living. If she appears to him like a beam of sunlight, it’s just, she tells him, “out of practice.”

Uncle Andre (Floyd VanBuskirk) wonders why Pyotr can’t pull his own weight around the house. “There are things to be done. We have to stock the lake!” As for Uncle Andre’s opinion of Maxim, it’s simple. “What a pitiful man he is!”

Another family member wandering about the expansive home is ethereal blonde beauty Marina (Rebecca Lowman), who disagrees with Irina about Maxim’s poetry. Marina thinks it’s simple. Irina disagrees: “I don’t think it’s simple. It’s distilled.”

At long last Mikhail arrives, greeting his host with an appropriately French “Zut alors,” and a casual, “The lake is so ugly!” Though he has brought a young woman named Anne (Amy Kidd) with him, she seems more than a bit upset. “Mikhail apparently confused me with one of his horses and left me outside,” she complains to her hosts. Anne is an actress, but “only by profession,” she clarifies. As for Mikhail, his hobby is model trains. It’s a metaphor for writing, he explains.

Marina is so taken aback when she first sees Mikhail among them that she faints. (Apparently she didn’t take her uncle’s advice: “Make sure to drink plenty of water, because you know if you don’t drink water, you swoon.”) A thoroughly impressed Anne remarks, “That’s the most spectacular faint I’ve ever seen.”

It turns out that when Pyotr was in Paris at the same time as Mikhail and Anne, “the three of us were “inseparable.” He’s clearly quite taken with the illustrious stage star, though this presents no problem to the world-weary Mikhail. “It’s all right. I don’t love her anymore. I don’t love me.”

We are soon made aware that due to the family’s dire financial straits, Uncle Andre wants to sell part of the estate to Mikhail. It remains to be seen whether he can be persuaded to buy it.

Whereas Chekhov’s actual plays can come across downbeat to the point of ennui (or at least when they’re played too deadly serious), when the stars of Impro Theatre are creating a new opus on the spot, laughter is a given, the revolving troupe of actors guaranteeing nary a moment of boredom and much to relish in their quick-thinking impromptu “scripts,” and though the above synopsis is of a play never to be seen again, it serves as an example of what is in store for audiences over the remaining weeks of Chekhov Unscripted’s run at the Odyssey.

Exits are sudden, and one of the treats in Chekhov Unscripted is to make a mental list of cast members’ priceless exit lines: “I feel I am not needed here.” “I will get some jam.” “I have a cake in the oven.” Wednesday’s most common reason to exit turned out to be the need for “a lie-down.” It seems, as one of the characters quipped, that everyone in the family is narcoleptic.

Another joy is that one never knows what’s going to pop out of someone’s mouth. “Even though we are indoors, we should take a stroll,” ad-libbed one of Wednesday’s characters. Another treat is the way that invisible props (e.g. vodka bottle and glasses) may suddenly have moved from one part of the stage to another mid-scene and apparently of their own propulsion.

Kidd, Lowman, Manuel, O’Connor, Patterson, Rogan, and VanBuskirk are just seven of the all-around terrific rotating cast of nineteen who improvise one Chekhov play and four Twilight Zone episodes on alternating nights. (The other improv aces are Lisa Frederickson, Kelly Holden-Bashar, Lissette Jean-Marie, Brian Michael Jones, Stephen Kearin, Lauren Rose Lewis, Brian Lohmann, Nick Massouh, Jo McGinley, Ryan Smith, Michele Spears,and Patty Wortham.)

All deserve major props for having made such a meticulous study of Chekhovian plays and short stories that improvising a new one in the style of the original makes for a thoroughly entertaining two-act play, and one that the Russian master himself might relish were he alive and well and sitting among the Odyssey audience.

Chekhov Unscripted owes much of its success to director O’Connor, who like his rotating troupe of actors, has become an expert at the world of Cherry Orchards and Seagulls and Sisters and Uncles named Vanya.

The evening’s behind-the-scenes stars include Sandra Burns’ lovely period-looking costumes and her oriental rug/antique furniture-strewn scenic design, Leigh Allen’s terrific pastel-toned lighting design (which the cast much know backwards and forwards in order to always “find their light” regardless of the where their improvisation takes them), and “lighting and sound improvisers” Ian Gotler, Eliot Hochberg, and Jean-Marie, who combine recorded background music with improvised sound effects to inspired effect.

Chekhov Unscripted and Twilight Zone Unscripted are produced for Odyssey Theatre by Beth Hogan and produced for Impro Theatre by Dan Fishbach and O’Connor. Julianne Buescher, Julia Emelin Loeb, and Tiffany Janeen are stage managers.

And so, in the words of the preshow announcement tailored specifically for Chekhov Unscripted, StageSceneLA readers are advised to “Take a moment to silence your hopes, dreams, and cell phones” and sit back and enjoy Chekhov as you’ve never seen him before and never ever will again.

Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
October 17, 2012
Photos: Enci

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