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Chekhov comes to Cambodia

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Treading the boards under the gun: Christine Liehr and Stuart Jordan act out a scene from one of Chekhov’s renowned tragicomedies.

Veteran director Brendan O'Driscoll hopes to raise chuckles with a pair of classic Russian one-acts this weekend as The Phnom Penh Players return to the stage

ANTON CHEKHOV: 1860-1904

BORN in 1860 in Taganrog, Russia, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov joined the nation’s most cherished storytellers. Although fond of vaudeville and farce, he made his name with epic tragedies. He began writing short stories while studying medicine at the University of Moscow and later mastered the one-act form, producing several masterpieces, most notably The Bear (1888) and The Wedding (1889). Moving onto full-length plays, Chekhov’s early attempts were unsuccessful. For his third effort, The Seagull
(1897), the future master honed his craft, and even then his success owed much to Moscow Art Theatre’s re-interpretation. This began a successful, if occasionally strained relationship. Chekhov insisted his plays were comedies and was often displeased with tragic readings. Nevertheless, Uncle Vanya (1899), The Three Sisters (1901) and The Cherry Orchard (1904) cemented Chekhov’s position as one of the greatest dramatists of all time. In his final years, Chekhov lived in exile in Crimea, dying from tuberculosis in 1904 at the age of 44.

THE capital's very own amateur theatre group, The Phnom Penh Players, is back with two performances of An Evening with Chekhov Comedies at Khmer Surin on September 4 and 5.

Consisting of two one-act comic plays by famed Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, the group hopes to get the audience laughing - not through modern slapstick comedy, but through the comic effect of occurrences in everyday life, as penned over a century ago.

The two plays, The Bear and The Proposal, are, according to director Brendan O'Driscoll, similar, but different. "They both look at the nature of love and relationships," he said, explaining that the former deals with gender roles and the emancipation of women, and that the latter is about a marriage of convenience.

"It's hard to believe this stuff was written over 100 years ago," O'Driscoll stated with admiration, adding that he believes the universal themes of the plays are what make them appealing even today.

Though a fairly recent arrival to Phnom Penh, O'Driscoll is a veteran of the theatre.

The Irishman was involved in more than 20 plays in Tanzania, where he lived before moving to Cambodia in August last year.

He also acted in the Phnom Penh Players' previous performance, Noises Off, in May.

"The Bear is my favourite one-act ever. I produced it in Dar es Salaam, and I wanted to direct it because you always think you know better than the director," O'Driscoll said.

Fearing only one short comedy would leave the audience discontented, he settled on The Proposal to complete the bill.

"I'm expecting a lot of laughs," O'Driscoll said. "But at the same time it's Chekhov, so it will give people something to think about as well. It's not just laughs for laughs sake."

SEATS PLEASE
An Evening of Chekov Comedies will be at Khmer Surin on Friday and Saturday at 7:30pm. Doors open 7pm. Tickets are US$10 at Java, Talkin’ to a Stranger and Rubies Wine Bar. Proceeds go to the Apsara Arts Association.
The director says he is a fan of classic plays, reasoning straightforwardly that "they're classics because they're so good".

When directing, he likes to stay true to the original play. "We're not doing Chekhov for idiots or anything," he said.

"We're staying faithful to the script, and the original tone of the play, but of course we're doing them in English, and we're not doing Russian accents."

Christine Liehr plays the lead in The Bear, despite being a newcomer to the world of acting.

She was involved backstage in the Players' previous production and after that experience felt the time was right to get on stage.

"Acting is not a secret passion, but it's something I've always wanted to do," she said, adding that the experience so far has been great.
She describes O'Driscoll as a fairly strict director. "He knows exactly what he wants," she said.

"In a way it's good, because he tells you straight, 'Do it like this, do it like that', but ... he's very direct and clear about what he wants," she concluded with a smile.

Like her director, Liehr enjoys the humour of the two plays, but admits it took a while to get into them.

She says the translations by Michael Frayn, on which the one-acts are based, help bring out the comedy of the pieces.

The rest, however, is up to the actors. "I hope the audience gets it, but it all depends on our acting," she said.

O'Driscoll, on the other hand, says he is certain the comedies will have the audience laughing.

"I think the audience will love them; actually, I really do," he said.

"There will be a couple of star performances, too," he added, though refrained from naming the stars, preferring to let the audience decide for itself.

Everyone involved in the play seems to agree it has been a fun four weeks putting the performances together.

Ronit Gerard, who, like Liehr, is a newcomer to the stage, describes it as a nice distraction from work.

"Everyone is here to have fun. That's why I like it. No one here takes it seriously," she said.

O'Driscoll agreed, saying that theatre groups are a great way to meet people from all walks of life, and urged those interested to audition for the Players' next performance, the annual Christmas panto.

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