Typically, if you want to experience a short story from Russian writer Anton Chekhov, you would need to crack open a book.
But in "We Play Chekhov," Breaking String Theater brings two of the writer’s short stories to life onstage. Graham Schmidt directs the show, now running at the Long Center’s Rollins Studio Theatre through Sunday, Aug. 24.
"The Black Monk," adapted for the stage by Kama Ginkas and translated by John Freedman, kicks off the evening. A scholar named Andrei Kovrin (Matt Radford) retreats to the country to work. The apparition of a monk (Noel Gaulin) soon appears to Kovrin and encourages him to express his genius. Kovrin revels in the monk’s praise even as he starts to question his own sanity.
Radford’s performance is charismatic, and he handles the wordy nature of the script with ease. Noel Gaulin gives the monk a highly physical, unhinged presence that crosses back and forth between comical and sinister. The story asks provocative questions about whether it’s better to be sane but bored or inspired but unhealthy.
"The Black Monk" is an extremely faithful literary adaptation, sticking closely to Chekhov’s language and including all the "he said" and "she said" moments that come with prose. The second piece of the night, Eliza Bent’s "The Beyoncé," (adapted from Chekhov’s "The Fiancée") takes a completely different approach, with modernized language and current pop culture references.
In "The Beyoncé," Nadia (Katy Taylor) is engaged to a preppy, bland man named Andre-Andre (Judd Farris). Her family (played by a trio of veteran Austin actors) is thrilled, but as she listens to the radical rantings of her friend Sasha (Noel Gaulin), she questions the stuffy upper class life she will be marrying into. The language is fresh and bubbly, with lots of jokes that poke fun at the lives of the privileged, but "The Beyoncé" also digs deeply into questions of independence and obligations to family. Both stories are supported by Ia Enstera’s striking, minimalist set — a wooden platform, multiple ropes, and tons of crumpled white paper — which creates an open space that lets the actors and the language shine.
"We Play Chekhov" is a highly intellectual night at the theater. The strength of the show is in the way it puts together two pieces that are a study in contrasts, letting the audience observe how two different playwrights approach literary adaptation. And, of course, in giving the audience an opportunity to experience Chekhov’s masterful understanding of the complex desires of the human soul.
"We Play Chekhov" continues at 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday through Aug. 24 in the Rollins Studio Theatre at the Long Center, 701 W. Riverside Drive. Tickets $22-$35 at www.longcenter.org or call 512-474-5664.