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Off-Broadway Review

'Donka: A Letter to Chekhov' Is Silly and Childish and Brilliant

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'Donka: A Letter to Chekhov' Is Silly and Childish and Brilliant
Photo Source: Viviana Cangelosi

“I have this strange feeling, Beatriz, that people don’t understand what we’re really doing,” admits Rolando Tarquini to Beatriz Sayad about halfway through the second act of “Donka: A Letter to Chekhov” as he sits downstage center, fishing into the few feet of Masonite between the actors and the first row of the audience. His feeling is very likely correct; people probably don’t understand what the cast is doing. It is also true that they likely don’t care and are having a very good time anyway, at least if they’ve been able to get over their bafflement at sitting down in front of a Next Wave Festival show and discovering not difficult experimental theater but a profoundly silly circus act that has roughly as much to do with Chekhov as “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.”

“Donka,” a collaboration among Company Finzi Pasca, Chekhov International Theatre Festival, and Théâtre Vidy-Lausanne, is a family-friendly show featuring jugglers, dancing, and a slapstick routine on a three-seater trapeze. There are also a couple of really wonderful scenes of shadow puppetry on a massive curtain that takes up most of the Harvey’s prodigious proscenium space and tinkers with notions of size and scale in some mind-bending ways. All the performers are excellent, but juggler David Menes deserves special mention for a number of astonishing displays of agility. There is a squirting fight in which actors duel with water-filled enema bulbs that lasts a full five minutes at least, and there is a long scene in which the performers simply break heavy balls, plates, and ornaments made of ice. There’s also some singing. It is silly and childish and brilliant in exactly the opposite direction from Chekhov, with kinetic energy in inverse proportion to the great Russian playwright’s brainy, emotionally rich stasis.

I should probably admit at this point that I have done quite a bit of trying to figure out why this show has Chekhov’s name on it. I have given up. The performers occasionally recount little bits of biographical detail, but the effect of these interludes on the performance is mostly to give audience members time to re-cross their legs and catch their collective breath after a particularly death-defying feat. The show is in at least five languages, frequently to comic effect—one character tries several continents’ worth of questions on another before getting the response “Whatchoo talkin’ ’bout, Willis?” and switching to English—and none of them make its ultimate meaning any clearer. Creator Daniele Finzi Pasca says in a director’s note that he wants to celebrate some of the little moments that Chekhov himself valued so much, but that is as clear as it gets.

Ultimately, if heady Russian drama is the excuse these amazing athletes needed to write a thematically interesting circus show with wide appeal, that’s fine. If they want to do a balloon-animal show about Sophocles next year, that would also be acceptable. All this is to say that when Daniele Finzi Pasca and his troupe show up in your town in five years with something called “Hecate: The Bloody Omens of Shakespeare,” bring the kids.

Presented by Brooklyn Academy of Music at the BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton St., Brooklyn, N.Y. Nov. 14–18. (718) 636-4100 or www.bam.org.

Critic’s Score: A

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