Unveiling Alley Theatre’s Little Comedies: An Experiment in Theatrical Fusion

By Richard Nelson, Little Comedies Director and Co-Translator

Richard Nelson

Richard Nelson 

I am pretty sure that Anton Chekhov never imagined an entire evening of five of his short plays, some which he subtitled ‘a joke’ or ‘a vaudeville.’ He did not write them to make up an evening. They were written in the context of the late 19th-century Russian vaudeville – where someone sings a song, an actor recites a speech from a play, and a Chekhov short play is mixed in. We do not have that context today. American vaudeville and its TV equivalents like the old Ed Sullivan Show are gone. I suppose the closest relative is what is called ‘sketch comedy’, done in Comedy Clubs. These are often improvised, and a good bit of the fun is watching how quickly the actors can think (and make up funny stuff) on their feet, live, in front of an audience. But these short plays aren’t like that either; they are written plays; and if seen in this context, there is the risk of an audience finding them to be poor, drawn out, sketch comedy bits.

I know of two efforts (I am sure there have been others) to combine Chekhov’s short plays into one evening. Both failed. The famous Russian director, Meyerhold, made one attempt; and he seems to have pushed the physical comedy to the breaking point. The English playwright and translator, Michael Frayn, created an evening he called The Sneeze; it starred a wonderful comedian (the ‘Mr. Bean’ in the TV show). It too proved not very funny.

So what we are attempting is, indeed, an experiment; to group these plays together, and, hopefully, end up with not just a series of skits, but rather some sort of whole. To my knowledge, our tack has never been tried before with these plays; that tack is to treat the plays as we would the full-length major plays of Chekhov (The Cherry Orchard, The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, etc.). That is, as plays about human beings, who struggle, find themselves in difficult straights, are lost, unaware, scared – and always recognizably human, and so like us. The ‘comedy’ of these ‘comedies’ then (and they are funny), is that of being profoundly human. And as each is quite short, hopefully they will come across not as individual ‘bits’ but as ‘snapshots’ of lives; and so when set side by side, they will portray a world. That’s our hope and our experiment.

Little Comedies has been translated by Richard Pevear, Larissa Volokhonsky and myself. Richard and Larissa are the foremost translators of classical Russian Literature into English alive today. And Little Comedies is the 10th Russian play(s) we have translated together. The decade I have spent working with these two great artists (focused on Chekhov, Turgenev, Bulgakov, Gogol) has been one of my most rewarding and fruitful artistic experiences.

Alley Theatre commissioned the translation of Little Comedies for its Resident Acting Company. And I see this as an opportunity to celebrate this wonderful group of actors, who represent (sadly) the last  full-time Resident Acting Company in the American non-profit theater. It is something the Alley is obviously proud of; and rightfully so. May the Alley’s commitment to these actors influence other theaters. Acting companies were at one time the very heart of the non-profit American theater movement (with companies in DC, San Francisco, New Haven, New York, Minneapolis and others); one can only hope that it will become so again.