The Life of the Party

Raucous, lively, veering toward chaos, with longueurs that seem to partake of the very social ritual it sought to recreate, Anton Chekhov’s The Wedding Reception, directed by Alexandru Mihail, offered the most fully integrated use of the space at the Yale Cabaret that I’ve witnessed.  Seated at the big white table between spaces “reserved for the wedding party,” I got the full effect of this hyperkinetic staging. This was a show where watching the audience reactions could be as fascinating as watching the characters, and with the latter at times seated amongst us, or questioning, jabbing, fondling, kissing, sitting on audience members, there was no possible way to uphold the polite convention of the fourth wall.  Granted, audience members didn’t get up on the table and dance (as almost everyone in the cast did), but if anyone had I’m sure the game cast would’ve accommodated any outbursts without missing a beat.

Updated in Mihail's production to the 1980s from the 1880s, the play is a one-act farce and only glancingly like any of Chekhov’s famous plays, though there are hints of Chekhovian tensions, most notably in the figure of garrulous, sentimental, sensual, and tactless Ivan Mikhailovich Yatz (Babak Gharael-Tafti), constantly apologizing for his “expressivity” as he gets carried away and insults his hosts, implying that the marriage was undertaken for money by the groom, Epaminondas Aplombov (Brian Lewis), and out of desperation by the bride, Dashenka.  Elsewhere, we might catch lines that suggest typical Chekhovian themes of resentment, self-abasement, and pretension, but this is Chekhov broad and loose, having fun caricaturing a host of boors, drunks, and phonies, each eagerly making utter spectacles of themselves.

Leading the incredibly active ensemble were Gharael-Tafti who seemed to be everywhere at once, looking every inch the East European disco lout he was meant to be; Sarah Sokolovic’s Anna Zmeyukhina, a comically drunken party girl, popping gum, flaunting herself to the audience, and begrudgingly belting out a “torch song” (Journey?) at the beseeching of Ivan, while demanding to be fanned; William DeMerritt as Dimba, a Greek whose Zorba-style antics undercut any sense of decorum; Lucas Dixon’s hilarious and Pythonesque turn as doddering Fyodor Revunov-Karaulov, supposedly a general paid to attend by oily Andrey Niunin (Brad Tuggle), but actually a retired chief petty officer given to shouting out sailor’s jargon from his days at sea, leaving everyone in the wedding party at sea until they demand, at first respectfully and then with increasing rudeness, that he change the subject or simply shut up.

In the wedding party proper, Brian Lewis was clean-cut and uptight as the groom with a tendency to robotic dancing and more interest in the receipts than in his bride.  The bride, played by Martyna Majok, both hid beneath the table and literally floated above it, held up by wires and the doting Ivan (I told you he was everywhere), and otherwise disported herself as a sullen woman on the verge of hysterics.  The actual hysterics were left to her mother, Nastasya Timofeyevna (Emily Reilly) who veered all over the place from steely hauteur, to whining and crying, to certain undisclosed activities under the table with her husband Yevdokin Zaharovich Zhigalov (Colin Mannex), a fairly upright guy, warmly bland.

Finally a word must be said for The Master of Ceremonies (Jack Tamburri), wearing darkened glasses in the style Chekhov (and John Lennon) wore, in vest and goatee, he seemed effectively positioned between the unctuous sybarites of Chekhov's time and the wily capitalists in a communist state at the end of the stagnant Brezhnev Era in which the Cab’s version was set, giving us a feel for the clash of cultures to come when the Wall comes down.

In the end I felt as one does at the end of a long night with aggressive partyers, glad to get out with a shred of dignity.  And if that's not Chekhovian realism I don't know what it is.

Anton Chekhov's The Wedding Reception; translated by Paul Schmidt; directed by Alex Mihail

Yale Cabaret, Oct. 21-23, 2010