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The Wood Demon

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

There are a number of reasons that Anton Chekhov's 1888 play, The Wood Demon, is rarely performed. Besides its bearing more than a passing similarity to his more polished Uncle Vanya, Chekhov even wanted to distance himself from the play, finding little in it to like himself.

Chekhov was right about lots of things, and add this one to the stack. The play is full of hand-wringing dialogue and tangled romantic complications that cry out for the more interesting complexities he bestowed on characters populating Uncle Vanya or The Cherry Orchard. The Wood Demon lacks much of the camouflaged wit of many of his later works, making its points broadly and coarsely.

It is easy to see, however, why Chekhov was interested in reviving the ideas of this play later on; the situations and the characters suggest that more and richer things are possible. This play's Vanya analogue is Voynitsky (John Jamiel), who has scrimped and saved his whole life at great personal cost to find his livelihood - and, by extension, his life - threatened at the worst possible moment, Uncle Vanya's Astroff is here Khrushchov (Jason David Tanner), the "wood demon" of the title, forever concerned with matters ecological and, occasionally, romantic.

Faced with this difficult work, the Desert Apple Theatre Company was facing an uphill battle in their inaugural production. It takes guts to take on Chekhov at his best, let alone his more mediocre, and Desert Apple should be commended for its bravery. That type of bravery doesn't always pay off - in most battles to the theatrical death, Chekhov will win - but the battlefield at production's end is surprisingly level, Desert Apple willing to meet Chekhov truly on his own terms.

That's thanks to director Cynthia Dillon's brilliant creative coup that presents the show with the type of staging and performing suggesting an overwrought, pre-Stanislavsky world. The actors emote openly, indicate unashamedly, often deliver lines directly to the audience, and move and speak in crisp, angular, unconnected ways. There are modern costumes (credited to Deborah Brunson), no props, and only the barest minimum of furniture to assist them; Todd Field's soft-handed and soft-edged lighting is about the only thing the actors have to work with.

So, the attitude permeating the Chernuchin Theater at the American Theater of Actors is a gripping, almost morbid one, the show feeling as though it's being viewed through a time warp. Taken on those terms, this production of The Wood Demon (using Carol Rocamora's translation) is an exquisite curiosity, 2003 in look, 1889 in feel. A more intriguing clashing of worlds is impossible to find in New York theatre at the moment.

All the actors are up to this momentous challenge, applying Dillon's rigorous performance standards with a delicious, if at first unsettling, verve. Not a single performance is "real" by our post-Method standards; no word is understated and no emotion is not oversized. My particular favorite was Steven Hess as Waffles, who took tremendous delight in raising either his left or right arm on every line with near-choreographic precision.

But all the performers had their moments, and never once did they break the wall of unreality they constructed in front of the audience. If this level of applied consistency is what New York theatregoers can expect from Desert Apple, then they're well on their way to being one of the city's most notable theatre companies. While I'm interested to see what their company can do with other dramatic styles applied to other plays, if they can bring weird, wacky life to a chestnut as hoary as The Wood Demon, there are clearly great things ahead.

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Desert Apple Theater Company
The Wood Demon
Through August 23
Chernuchin Theater, American Theater of Actors, 314 West 54th Street
Schedule and Tickets: SmartTix at 212.868.4444