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Check out your inner Russian at Chekhov festival

Winter in Minnesota can become quite a slog, especially when you get to the seemingly endless stretches in February and the brutal cold this week.

Slavic Love
Photo by Rubenstein Photo
Dylan Fresco hosts “Slavic Love! An Evening of Romantic Russian Song.”

Winter in Minnesota can become quite a slog, especially when you get to the seemingly endless stretches in February and the brutal cold this week.

You wouldn’t think that an evening of Anton Chekhov could chase away the blues, but the Twin Cities Chekhov Festival allows patrons at the Bryant-Lake Bowl to bond with their inner Russian with a series of innovative, entertaining and even comedic offerings.

“Chekhov is an incredible writer, and most people only know a few of his long plays — ‘The Seagull’ or ‘The Cherry Orchard’ — but he also wrote about a dozen short comic sketches and almost a thousand short stories,” says Genevieve Bennett, the festival’s producer. “A festival was a great way to expose audiences to his breadth of work.”

The festival grew out of an event last year, when an evening of Chekhov’s comedies was presented at the Bryant-Lake Bowl in Minneapolis. It was such a success that Bennett saw an opportunity to bring more Chekhov to the masses. Once there, the masses get a chance to interact with one of the great authors of the last two centuries.

“Chekhov speaks to us because his characters are people standing on the brink — of love, death, discovery, and just over the horizon, revolution,” Bennett says. “They, like us, are facing social, political and personal upheaval that has the potential to change everything about their lives. Ultimately, many of his works are about extremely timely and timeless subjects – love, art, the struggle between comfortable stasis and painful change, and the desire to preserve our sense of place and purpose in a world that is spinning too fast for us to keep up.”

Chekhov’s inner comic

While there are Chekhovites who will drive long distances to see a production of “Uncle Vanya,” most audiences might approach the playwright — who has a reputation of being serious, dour and, well, Russian — with some trepidation. Yet there is often a mischievous and satirical streak in the author’s writings, a streak played out in several of the productions.

“Even ‘The Seagull,’ the show that I am directing, has a lot of humor,” Bennett says. “It was really important to me to make sure that humor came through — it gives the plays more color and makes the characters more human. We also feature some other funny works in the festival — Jade Esteban Estrada did a one-man cabaret that took a ‘seriously funny’ look at some of Chekhov’s classics, and Chantal Pavageaux is doing a hilarious deconstruction of ‘Three Sisters.’ “

While the festival includes the famous works (which have played to sold-out houses), other explorations offer the Ministry of Cultural Warfare’s 40-minute deconstruction “A Rain of Seagulls” or a twin bill of “On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco” (a Chekhov short story) and “A Water Bird Talk” (an operatic adaptation of that story). Several artists are tackling ‘Three Sisters’ — from Pavageaux’s “Tres Bitches — or — I Wanna Go to Moscow” to Mu Performing Arts’ all-Asian-American production.

From “Tres Bitches”:

Plagued by headaches?
Hate your job but keep getting promoted?

You’re an Olga.

In desperate need of some purpose?
Not have a lot to wear after Labor Day?

You’re an Irina.

Feeling a little frustrated with your relationship?
Wondering who let the dogs out?

You’re a Masha.

Definitely not what you’d expect from a first encounter with Chekhov.

“I’ve had a lot of people come up to me and say, ‘This was my first Chekhov — I didn’t know what to expect, but I loved it!’ And I’ve also had people who know Chekhov inside and out say that they’ve loved seeing him done in such an intimate environment like Bryant Lake Bowl,” Bennett says.

And the unique location (come on, how many bowling alley/theaters are there?) has only helped.

The environment makes the work “immediate and accessible,” she says. “Chekhov has suffered from the stuffy, elevated, disconnected productions that often suck the life out of ‘a classic.’ We wanted to place the work in an environment that restores its vitality and reveals its relevance.”

What: The Twin Cities Chekhov Festival
When: through March 1
Where: Bryant-Lake Bowl, 810 W. Lake St.
Tickets: $8 for students, $10-$15 adults
Phone: 612-825-8949