The Joyful Side of Chekhov in 'Razkazy'

"I had some themes I wanted to deal with--namely death," said Ensemble Studio Theatre artistic director David Kaplan. He was talking of "Razkazy," a collection of Chekhov's short stories, opening Thursday at the theater.

"(Adapter/director) Stephen Sachs had been working on 'Baron in the Trees' and I'd been doing 'The Cherry Orchard,' " he said, "so I gave him a book of Chekhov's short stories and said, 'You have to do this one ("Kashtanka," about a dog who runs away from home and joins the circus), but choose anything else you want.' Stephen also came up with a theme of his own--and the commedia technique he used in 'Baron,' which brings out the joyful side of Chekhov.

"It's appropriate to the technique," Kaplan said. "If you have yellow paint, you paint sunflowers. And Chekhov is usually done so gloomy, because of the subject matter. But it's really life-affirming. The miracle of Chekhov is that people have joy in life in spite of the knowledge of death--joy within the shadow of death. The presence of death makes life so much more sweet. It's why I find Indian Summer the most moving time of year: It's the knowledge that it won't last that makes it more precious."

The other pieces include "Grief," "Inadvertence," "In the Cemetery" and "A Dead Body." "Razkazy" plays in repertory--on the newly refurbished Sarah Cunningham Stage--with Robert Schenkkan's "Tachinoki" through Jan. 23.

Twenty-five years in Russia and 24 hours in Brooklyn come together in Abraham Tetenbaum's comedy/drama "Heat of Re-Entry," the story of a Russian playwright now living in New York and his obsession with cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. (It opens Tuesday at Theatre 40.)

"The story traces Gagarin's life; the incredible events are enacted on-stage," said director Stewart J. Zully. "When he goes up in a space ship, we see it--evoked in music and dance. Space travel is something we take for granted now, but then, in 1961, it was a big event. So we see Gagarin's life--and also the playwright's life.

"He's come from Russia with his wife and they're living with his mother-in-law. He's in Brooklyn, but (in his head) he's in Russia. He needs to come out of his self-entrapment--and through the events in Gagarin's life, he learns what he has to do to break out of his shell."

The multimedia piece (which premiered at Playwrights Horizons in 1981) features four actors in multiple roles, an original score by Martin Berman, and dual settings. "At any moment," Zully said, "you can be in Brooklyn or Red Square--because it all takes place in the playwright's mind."

CRITICAL CROSS FIRE: Michael Rupert and Jerry Colker's musical comedy "Mail," which had a triumphant debut in June at the Pasadena Playhouse, is back.

Said Sylvie Drake in The Times: "Again it's a terrific, compact, glamorous, witty, clever, neurotic, very '80s show. One can quibble with a few items here and there, but if you accept the volatility of the premise, the anti-hero as part heel, part well-intentioned goof-off, there's no escaping the brightness and incisiveness of this show. It's got our ZIP code down to the last digit."

Drama-Logue's Lee Melville was also a fan: "You must see this show (unless you don't like musical theatre) because 'Mail' is the epitome of how alive a musical can be; it reflects a maturing change from the old traditional form. It is fresh, invigorating, good-humored fun, even though it touches few exposed nerves. It is the musical of the '80s; as up to date as 1988 with its finger on the pulse of how people are affected in their relationships with each other."

From Maggie Daniels in the Orange County Register: "Colker and Rupert are technically impressive, but fall a few inches short of the show's promise creatively. In itself, the echoes of Sondheim in 'Mail's' patter and melodic lines is easy to take, but the writers don't create voices of their own or tunes with enough substance to stick with you, so that at intermission you're thinking about 'Mail' and humming snatches of 'Sunday in the Park With George.'

Jan Breslauer, in the Herald-Examiner, liked it even less: "Sentimentality, George Bernard Shaw said, is 'unearned emotion,' and 'Mail' is full of precisely that. Unplanned pregnancy, divorce and personal tribulations ad nauseum are meant to tug at our hearts--and might--if only we weren't so painfully aware that that's what they were put there to do. The text is redundant and the situations are stale. Add to these deficits a central character who gives us no reason to care about his plight, an utterly predictable action line and dearth of emotional value."

And from Tim Gray in Daily Variety: " 'Mail' boasts an excellent leading performance, some inventive staging on a wondrous set, and such energy and eagerness to please that it's almost possible to overlook the fact that, at this point, the show isn't really very good . . . . Though director Andrew Cadiff hasn't helped the writers find the core of the play, his staging is fluid and theatrical and he makes maximum use of the outstanding, versatile set of Gerry Hariton and Vicki Baral."

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