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At just over thirty-three minutes long, The Bear is much shorter than most of the International Actors Ensemble’s projects, but it is no less brilliant. Anton Chekhov is known for his miserable plays, which tend to feature a fair amount of crying and dying, but this one is absolutely hilarious.
Popov owes Grigory Stepanovitch Smirnov money. Smirnov is well aware that Popov is now deceased, but he’s not about to let a little thing like that stop him from getting the money that is rightfully his. After all, Popov has a wife who is still living. Smirnov goes to the house and demands to see Yelena Ivanovna Popov. Footman Luka makes his best effort to prevent this, but nobody listens to anything Luka says.
Part of the fun is in this brilliant translation. I’m not familiar with the original Russian text for the simple reason that I can’t read Russian, but I do have an English translation. However, IAE have taken their translation a step further – David Meadows’ adaption is in verse.
It works perfectly. The rhymes are accurate and very amusing. The adaption tells the story without going off-topic. The play has three very distinctive characters with strong personalities, but the rhymes don’t affect this at all. Everything the characters say sounds natural (for them, anyway; maybe not so much for most people) and unforced. It’s clever and witty and really good fun.
The production is also outstandingly acted and directed. The three characters have backgrounds which are different but clearly part of the same room (the virtual scenery is by Quentin Zoude), which really help to set the scene. There are some very clever entrances and exits – the characters actually move out of range of the screen, rather than simply switching their camera off, but they don’t always leave by walking to the left or the right, some characters genuinely seem to be walking towards the other end of the room and there are also some great moments when characters enter and exit at the bottom of the screen. It’s very skilfully done.
David Meadows and Valentina Vinci have worked on a lot of IAE productions together and it shows in their fantastic onstage chemistry. They are both excellent individually - David is boorish and aggressive as Smirnov, but too hilarious to be hated. Valentina is outraged and hysterical, as you might expect from a Russian heroine, but she’s also intelligent and very loveable. But they also work brilliantly together, their reactions and timing perfect as the characters become more and more incensed with one another. Every time you think they can’t give more to the scene, David and Valentina prove you wrong, by taking the scene in a new direction or somehow finding even more energy.
Luka has a much smaller role and it is a measure of David France’s quality that he manages to make such a strong impression in a story which focuses on Yelena and Smirnov. He delivers Luka’s lines perfectly and adds another layer to the comedy as he rushes around, aware that some man is screaming at his mistress (though, let’s be fair: she screams right back) but having absolutely no idea what he’s supposed to do about it.
Another outstanding production and much as I love Shakespeare, it’s great to see the IAE performing something so different.