The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming!
Beginning tonight a smorgasbord of Russian characters, including newlyweds, drunks, swindlers, and the music of Olga and her Band of Fast-Approaching Bolsheviks, is taking over CSU’s University Center for the Arts.
“The play is like a game of Russian roulette – one moment it’s real fun and then you pull the trigger and you get a whole different experience,” said Robert Mitchell, a junior international studies major and actor in the production.
The world premiere of “33 Swoons: A Russian Vaudeville” brings the stories of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov to life.
One-act plays, dancing, juggling, fire hoops and numerous other shenanigans will be presented by a cast of 29, the largest cast CSU’s Theatre Division has ever assembled on stage.
The production is a play within a play, as audience members will be able to see backstage and watch people getting into costume, playing cards or drinking too much.
“This has never been done before and it’s been a challenge,” said Walt Jones, director of the play and CSU’s Theater Program who joined the university in August 2006. “I could have done a show I’ve done before because I’m in a new place I could probably coast, but I decided to go for broke on this one.”
Chekhov, known for his full-length plays “The Seagull,” “Cherry Orchard” and “Three Sisters,” also wrote over 600 stories. Three of the writer’s one-act plays are in the production: “The Brute,” “The Wedding and “The Proposal,” along with other stories such as “Kashtanka,” which features cat and dog marionettes.
“33 Swoons” takes place in Russia in 1916, a year before the Bolshevik Revolution. The idea is to show a hypothetical vaudeville Russian theater company on tour.
“The magic of it is that no one (in the audience) will ever have any idea if we do anything wrong,” said Zach Brown, a senior English major and actor in the play.
“The audience will only know we mess up unless we tell them,” Brown said as he tuned his guitar in the Green Room on Tuesday night.
Only a couple days before their first rehearsal had the huge cast actually started to practice together. The Green Room before the dress/technical rehearsal on Tuesday night had the hectic feel and atmosphere of a vaudeville bracing for opening night. Some performers were dressed in costume; others were reciting their lines to themselves as people laughed about “Darkwing Duck” and “Dick Tracy.”
“It’s a little chaotic right now,” said Soleil Lean, a senior theater major dressed in a cream-colored wedding dress. Lean encouraged students to come out to see the play because it is different and unlike anything CSU has put on before.
“Not many people here (at CSU) know we have a theater department or that we have a great program,” Lean said. “I would like people to see that.”
About eight or nine olios, which are brief acts presented in the front of the stage while the crew is setting up behind the curtain for the next play, will be performed as well. Clowns, a folk singer named Nikita the Illusionist and a Russian stand-up comic all will have their own olios.
“This should be something of a spectacle,” said Brown, who is a member of the Russian folk singing band.
Jones is a Chekhov fan and while he was department chair at the University of California-San Diego he taught a class with a doctor on Chekhov’s plays that was a required course for all second-year medical students.
“The reason he did this is because he thought it would improve their bedside manner,” Jones said. “Many times they (the students) said in reading Chekhov he didn’t just write characters he diagnosed them because he himself was a doctor.”
Along with directing “33 Swoons” Jones translated and adapted the play. Jones directed a play in Russia in 1991 using Russian actors and traveled around the country.
When auditioning students for the play Jones said he asked people to act out a monologue but also bring in a special talent they have. Students juggled, sang, performed magic and played the cello at the audition. One student said if it had strings he could probably play it, so Jones equipped him with a balalaika, a Russian guitar, and incorporated it into the play.
“This could have been done with eight actors,” Jones said. “The fact I chose to do it with so many actors is to give more people an opportunity to be part of a company.”
Overall around 122 people are involved with the production and only half are theater majors.
“They’re all pretty game, they’ll try anything,” Jones said. “That’s what I like about them.”
The play is named after Russian director Vsevolod Meyerhold’s 1935 theatrical experiment presenting Chekhov’s vaudevilles in a lively and unrefined manner. The name “33 Swoons” came about because that is how many fainting spells there were in the production.
“It’s going to be un-fucking-believable,” said Andrew Strenk, a senior business finance major dressed in a suit and top-hat on Tuesday night.
Strenk was waiting with Robert Mitchell, donning a white fake wig, to go onstage to act out their parts in “The Wedding.” One of Chekhov’s one-acts, the story involves a wedding slipping into disarray as a retired naval captain “of the second rank,” a drunken father-in-law and an over-sexed midwife wreck havoc on the ceremony.
“Never will you be able to see such a wide variety of pieces,” Mitchell said. “It’s like “Borat” on ice, like crazy, drunken vodka flavored ice.”
Staff writer Brian Park can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“33 Swoons: A Russian Vaudeville” opens April 12 and runs the 13, 14, 18, 19, 26, 27 and 28 at 8 p.m., and April 29 at 2 p.m.
The play is in the University Theatre at the University Center for the Arts, 1400 Remington St.
Tickets are $6 for CSU students, $14 for the general public and $10 for seniors, plus service charges.
Tickets can be purchased at www.csutix.com or at 491-4TIX – advance purchase is highly recommended.