‘From Russia with Bugs’, an existential romp

Three pairs of Converse sneakers – one sparkled, one plaid and one splattered with neon colors – were subtle stars of the Cap and Bells show From Russia with Bugs at the ’62 Center’s CenterStage this past weekend. On the feet of actors Julia Drake ’11, Chris Fox ’11 and Pearson Jenks ’09, the colorful Chuck Taylors are an apt synecdoche for the way that this production of five one acts by David Ives and Anton Chekhov, directed by Jesse Gordon ’10, unfurled. Quietly clever stylistic choices like zany footwear gave the production its particular, homemade pizazz coupled with the difficult ying-yang of comic morbidity.

Billing itself as a night at the comedy club complete with restaurant seating at front, the production began with Mike Leon ’11 as comedian/emcee. Fox followed as Mr. Nyukhin, the drunk and depressed lecturer of Chekhov’s “The Evils of Tobacco.” Stumbling on stage in classic sot fashion, Nyukhin quickly endeared himself to his audience-turned-confidants, abandoning his anti-smoking lecture to complain about his oppressive wife, who appeared in cleverly lighted shadow form at the piece’s end.

“Degas, C’est Moi” harnessed the versatility of the CenterStage black box space as Jenks roamed the two floors and wide berth, all the while narrating his day spent believing he was the 19th-century French painter Edgar Degas. Fox and Drake scuttled around him, popping in through doors and window bays, portraying in succession such characters as the baker, the newspaper hawker and the laundress that Degas encounters. The wig of wiry red braids, Pippi Longstocking-style, which had already cropped up in the show reappeared on a cross-dressing Fox’s head, an accessory to a rose-colored belly shirt (“Isn’t it my duty as an artist to seduce this girl?” said the Degas-wannabe Jenks). Afros, robes, fake beards and powdered wigs appeared and disappeared with the happy intermittence of the light on firefly butts. Underneath the action, a jam band comprised of Andrew Dominitz ’11, Jon Morgenstern ’11 and Ben Peskoe ’10 further set the mood.

The selection of one acts juxtaposed slapstick with existentialism and an affinity for goofy props with an obsession with the certainty of death. One moment, the father in Chekhov’s “The Proposal” poured a pitcher of water onto his daughter’s prostrate, heart-palpitating suitor. In the next, as the suitor announced his impending death, the father gave him a kick and bellowed, “Get married!” The moment was decidedly Chekhovian with Gordon’s touch of flair – social commentary, comedy and the mirthful specter of death all at once.

These five plays, as demanding as they are diverse, presented an opportunity for the actors to demonstrate a depth of acting skill. Drake and Fox both hit several notes well: they each exhibited persistent energy and verve. However, Drake’s persistent anger was often too self-consciously comedic (the huffing and puffing seemed choreographed rather than felt), and Fox’s elastic, twitchy demeanor, while hilarious, became tired after it repeated itself with only slight modification in each successive one act.

Jenks hit every note spot-on. Whether a ponderous and subtle Degas-wannabe or a crazed and miserly father in the Russian countryside, Jenks knew when to exercise restraint and when to turn full on to the audience and shake his fist with both authentic and mock damnation.

Costume choice exhibited the show’s affection for the everyday: all three actors remained in jeans and T-shirts, occasionally throwing an apron, cardigan or tailcoat over their street clothes when the character called for it. Gordon also flaunted his taste for wacky props and accoutrement: the taxi cab driver in “Degas, C’est Moi” steered with a pirate ship’s wheel, and Horace the Mayfly’s antenna blinked happy reds and greens when his lady rubbed them in a pre-coital embrace just before the two realized that they have just one day to live in “Time Flies.” In “Captive Audience,” the cautionary tale against the sinister undercurrents of television, mustaches and wigs flew on and off just before the moment of anti-catharsis in which the television irrevocably entraps its watchers in its clutches.

The production was so thick with both toys and poignant one-liners commenting on modern life that maybe From Russia with Bugs was meant to be a critique of the capitalist systems that produce Marie Antoinette wigs and glue-on caveman beards. Or perhaps, Marxist models aside, it was, simply and wonderfully, a funny show with something to say.