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Review: 'Masterpieces of Russian Drama'

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If you're looking for great theatre, you won't find it in Masterpieces of Russian Drama, two one-acts by Anton Chekhov and Nikolai Gogol. What you will see are fine performances by a trio of first-rate actors, including the doyen and doyenne of Cleveland theatre, Reuben and Dorothy Silver, a long-married, award-winning couple who have enjoyed theatrical careers of more than 50 years. The double bill is presented under the auspices of the Cleveland Museum of Art. The adaptation and direction are by Massoud Saidpour, artistic director of the museum's year-round performing arts and film series.

"Swan Song," a short sketch by a young Chekhov still experimenting with dramatic form, centers on a besotted, aging actor, played by Reuben Silver, ruminating over 55 years in the theatre. He is joined by his faithful prompter, played by Dorothy Silver. At first the elderly actor bemoans his age, his loneliness, and his mortality. But as he assumes the personae of his stage characters, including Macbeth, Lear, and Othello, he grows "young" and vigorous again. Silver perfectly captures the lugubrious self-centeredness that is at the heart of Chekhov's immortal characters, while his wife is the perfect foil as Lear's simpering fool and Othello's fearful Desdemona. In the end, though, "Swan Song" is a rough-hewn vignette that merely hints at the mature Chekhov, even if in a mere 20 minutes the gifted Silvers manage to find the humanity in these tragicomic characters.

The second half of the 80-minute production, presented without intermission, is called "Confessions," drawn from Gogol's short story "Diary of a Madman," about a petty clerk's descent into madness. Terence Cranendonk's performance as the office clerk (called the Man) is nothing less than heroic, but the hourlong monologue, in which a torrent of words is rendered meaningless, goes on for too long and loses its voltage.

Still, whether barking like a dog, mooing like a cow, or fluttering like a falling handkerchief, Cranendonk endows his character with an intense physicality that is a joy to watch. Christopher Steffens' lighting projects streams of words on the walls like graffiti, mirroring the letters the Man is reading and Gogol's story, which is written like a diary. The presentation echoes the methodology of Simon McBurney's much-heralded Theatre de Complicite, in which gestural movements and visual effects are intrinsic to the process.

I love the intimate setting of Kennedy's, a converted cabaret bar in which every seat hugging the three-quarters-in-the-round stage offers a commanding view. But the evening left me theatrically hungry. Character sketches are no substitute for a play you can sink your teeth into.

Masterpieces of Russian Drama runs Jan. 5-22 at Kennedy's, Playhouse Square Center, 1501 Euclid Ave., Cleveland. Tickets: (888) 262-0033. Website: www.cma.org.

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