Barely 1 1/2 years after its first play in December 2002, Bay Theatre Company's fifth offering, Anton Chekhov's The Sneeze, establishes the company's reputation for superbly acted, high-quality plays.
Co-founders Lucinda Merry-Browne and Janet Luby are adept at selecting small-cast plays that work well in the intimate theater space. Merry-Browne directs six of the seven Sneeze vignettes - with the title one directed by Jim Chance - and she plays supporting roles, while Luby is featured in three of the seven.
Joining them onstage are professional actors Chris Poverman, Allyson Tierney, Gus Demos and Karl Kippola with dramaturgy help from Dylan Southard, who made sure the production is true to the author's spirit.
The Sneeze is based on humorous short stories and plays by 19th-century Russian dramatist Anton Chekhov translated and adapted by Michael Frayn.
Performed entirely in mime, the title segment concerns petty official Chervyakov - played by Kippola, who enjoys an opera performance with his wife (Luby) until he sneezes violently, spraying the officer seated in front of him.
The action then centers on Chervyakov's efforts to remove the evidence while dealing with his wife's distress and the annoyance of officer Brizzhalov (Demos) and his stoic wife (Tierney).
"Drama" tells of a would-be author forcing an established writer to listen to her amateur attempts.
Luby is aggressively annoying as the fledgling playwright, and Demos is solid as the long-suffering Pavel Vasilyevich.
"The Proposal" is about Lomov, a hypochondriac suitor who visits his neighbor Chubukov to offer a marriage proposal to the neighbor's daughter, Natalya. As Lomov, Kippola proves a master at slapstick, displaying Lomov's various tremors, palpitations and paralysis from fright. Rubber-faced Kippola twitches eyes, nose and lips on cue. Tierney provides an energetic portrait of a fickle young woman who cannot control her temper. As her father, Demos is intent on bringing about a happy conclusion. Although "The Proposal" generally succeeds, it might benefit by shortening the couple's repetitive arguments, which become tedious.
Two vignettes are monologues. "Plots," featuring Kippola as Shelestov, rehearsing his presentation in front of the mirror, amuses as it mirrors our own inner doubts. "The Evils of Tobacco," revealing the speaker's unhappiness at being subservient to his powerful wife, is well-acted by Demos as Nyukhin, but somewhat drags. Both performances demonstrate first-rate acting skills.
"The Alien Corn" depicts the power struggle between landowner Kamyushev (Demos) and his employees: a French tutor (Kippola) whom he berates, and his servant (Poverman). Not only is Kippola's French accent convincing, but his performance is also finely nuanced throughout, giving Demos' landowner extra bite.
"The Bear," tells of Smirnov (Poverman), who comes to collect a man's debt from his widow, Popova (Luby), still mourning her unfaithful husband. Refusing to pay, Popova chooses to settle the matter by a pistol duel, her courage proving irresistible to Smirnov, who decides that he loves the widow. Poverman and Luby establish notable rapport while providing lots of laughs.
The Sneeze continues Thursday through Sunday through May 29 at Bay Theatre, 275 W. Garrett Place. Call 410-268-1333 to order tickets.