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Chekhov Shorts, Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theatre

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Photos courtesy of Mike Hardy.

Anton Pavlovich Chekhov was a writer and a doctor. He said that "Medicine is my lawful wife and literature is my mistress." It makes perfect sense, then, that Chekhov Shorts, directed by Diane Benedict for the Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theatre, should prescribe laughter as the best remedy.

It's a clever arrangement of three short stories. The Bear and The Marriage Proposal are sandwiched between The Bet. The Bear tells the story of recently widowed Elena Ivanovna Popova (Andrea Gwynnel Morgan). She's got property, she's got a footman, Luka (Loren Bidner). But her husband's death leaves her unable to repay a debt to the bear that is Grigory Stepanovitch Smirnov (Timothy Fitzgerald). In The Marriage Proposal Ivan Vassiliyitch Lomov (Brett David Williams) asks Stepan Stepanovitch Chubokov (Jeff Asche) for his daughter Natalia's (Sarah Klein) hand in marriage. In The Bet banker Kolya (Floyd Riggle) debates a lawyer Vlad (Mike Daze) as to what's more humane, capital punishment or life imprisonment.

Like the short stories, the direction is crisp. Three intermissionless, standalone vignettes that present the depth and breadth of human nature in all's its imperfect glory.

It's the telling of the stories, though, that makes this a memorable evening. Benedict could have played it as straight and respectable as Andrew Vonderschmitt's and Donna Fritsche's late 19th century Russian gentry set design and costumes. Lucky for us, she didn't. With the exception of The Bet, the other two pieces are Laugh In hilarious and raucous, much more so when you consider the period in which they're set.

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"The Bear's" Elena isn't just a damsel in distress widow; she's a melodramatic diva. Morgan is over the top funny. She's passionate, has perfect comic timing, and her gestures and facial expressions befit a silent film star. She doesn't just grieve her husband's death; she mourns it like she herself is about to die. Likewise, she responds with grand histrionics to the demands of Fitzgerald's Smirnov. She saves the best for last, though. The way she shows how her anger with Smirnov could just as easily become affection is nothing short of miraculous.

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A similar melodrama can be seen in the three protagonists of The Marriage Proposal. The humor is not just in the fact that Lomov and Natalia bicker throughout the proposal; it's in the way the characters trump up their respective idiosyncrasies. Silver's Chubokov is over the moon at the news of his daughter's pending marriage. He skirts across the stage like he's dancing a jig. Williams' Lomov isn't just a timid hypochondriac, he's like Redd Foxx in Sanford and Son clutching his chest and telling his dead wife that he'll soon join her. And Klein's Natalia, on the floor, feet in the air, throws a tantrum more worthy of a sit-com brat than a Russian aristocrat's daughter.

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All this humor is set up by Riggle's Kolya and Daze's Vlad. Theirs is a serious debate topic presented as something out of Rod Sterling and Edgar Allan Poe. Both Riggle and Daze are straight laced and sober. The tone they set is the furthest thing imaginable from the tone of the other two stories. It's as if Benedict (and Chekhov) want to remind us that, sure, love and marriage and everything that goes into it are funny but, in the final analysis, there's more to life. Much more.

Performances are 8pm, Friday and Saturday, 2pm, Sunday. The show runs until July 12. Tickets are $14 - $21. The Playhouse is located at 5021 E. Anaheim Street, Long Beach, CA 90802. For more information, call (562) 494-1014 or visit www.lbplayhouse.org.