Disaster and humor are a hit at the Nitery

“History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.”

The famous observation by Karl Marx provided the inspiration for Stanford Repertory Theater’s 2017 summer festival, “The Many Faces of Farce,” directed by ALEX JOHNSON, SRT associate artistic director.

Audiences are responding positively to the festival. Tickets for opening weekend sold out quickly, and this weekend’s performances are nearing capacity, but there are still seats to be had before the festival closes on Aug. 27, and there is a waitlist for each performance.

RUSH REHM, SRT founder and artistic director, explained that this summer the company’s goal is to combine “raucous performances of Chekhov’s classic farces The Bear, The Proposal and The Anniversary with a cutting-edge piece based on Meyerhold’s 33 Swoons, and provide some hilarity and relevance.” The play is based on a little-known history of Vsevolod Meyerhold, one of the 20th century’s greatest directors and close collaborator of Chekhov’s.

Cast members in The Many Faces of Farce include Malaika Murphy-Sierra (Merchutkina), left, Matthew Libby (Smirnov), Bella Wilcox (Tatiana), Lillian Bornstein (Popova), Adi Chang (Lomov) and Heather Connelly (Lyuba).
Cast members in “The Many Faces of Farce” include (left to right): Malaika Murphy-Sierra (Merchutkina), Matthew Libby (Smirnov), Bella Wilcox (Tatiana), Lillian Bornstein (Popova), Adi Chang (Lomov) and Heather Connelly (Lyuba).

Discussing his work on the plays, Johnson says he was drawn to the way in which farce and political circumstances intersect, and the way in which humor can be dangerous. “One of the most exciting discoveries we’ve made this summer is that the farces feel as fresh today as they did in 1888, and that Meyerhold’s dilemma in 1935 foreshadows our own in pressing ways,” said Johnson. “Echoes from the past meet with voices from the present, in a performance that entertains and enlightens all at once.”

Known for moving dramas of Russian country life, Chekhov began as a writer of burlesques for humor magazines, and a comedic vein runs through all of his plays. One of his earliest theatrical successes, The Bear, sets two headstrong personalities at odds: a young widow and the man who loaned money to her husband. When she refuses to pay, they goad each other to precipitous heights of nonsense.

In The Proposal, a timid suitor’s attempts to propose marriage unleash a frenzy of accusations, recriminations and palpitations of the heart.

In The Anniversary, a bank manager’s well-laid plans to celebrate a milestone run amok when a cascade of visitors storms the bank.

Cast member Heather Connelly, ’18, said working on these plays has been a joy both onstage and off. “I’ve loved having the space to bring my internal questions about the purpose and productiveness of theater into our discussions and onto the stage.”

These rarely performed comedies show Chekhov in a different key: fast-paced, sharp-tongued and funny. As one reviewer of “The Many Faces of Farce” points out, Chekhov explores “the difference between external reality and the stories in our heads.”

To complement the Chekhov classics, SRT presents a new piece based on 33 Swoons, the name that theater innovator Meyerhold gave to his 1935 production of these same Chekhov plays in Stalin’s Moscow.

Says Rehm, “Meyerhold dared to make his audiences laugh in spite of the censors’ claim that ‘There is absolutely no place for satire in Soviet society.’ These same censors authorized the destruction of Meyerhold’s theater, his exile to Siberia and his eventual assassination. SRT’s version of 33 Swoons uses his story to question the role of comedy and censorship in our current political world.

“Mixing archival with contemporary material, 33 Swoons explores the interplay of tragedy and farce, struggle and laughter, in a way that would make even Marx take note.”