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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Guthrie Lab's Lady With A Lapdog
enchants and exhausts

Robert Olinger, Stephen Pelinski, Trey Burvant, Monica West
If you take a very short story about ennui and stretch it out on stage for one hour and 50 minutes to embody that ennui, you run the risk of successfully creating ennui. Even though you infuse the slow play with visual and theatrical wizardry of the highest order, you still have ennui. Renowned Russian director Kama Ginkas' stylized adaptation of Chekhov's short story, Lady With A Lapdog at the Guthrie Lab wows its audiences visually and with its creativity and clever acting, and it wearies them with tedium.

Lapdog, was originally commissioned and produced by American Repertory Theatre, and it comes to the Guthrie Lab complete with Sergey Barkhin's stunning conceptual set and ART's original American cast, starring Guthrie member, excellent Stephen Pelinski.

In Ginkas' adaptation of Lapdog, Dmitry Gurov and Anna Sergeyevna narrate and drop in and out of their own story as they tell of their love affair in Yalta and its bitter consequences. Married Muscovite, Gurov, holidays alone by the sea; he's well established, middle-aged, bored by his wife and family and alert to romantic diversion. He meets and seduces Anna Sergeyevna, a young, unhappily married woman half his age. When she leaves to return to her husband in Petersburg, Gurov expects to forget Anna, as he has his other dalliances. But this man, who has lived on life's surface, finds he cannot forget her. He pursues her to Petersburg and learns that she is similarly obsessed. Gurov is finally in love, but it's an illicit love of deceit, loneliness and enduring pain.

Ginkas sprinkles the snail-paced matrix of Lapdog with brilliant theatrical devices and some real humor. His use of narration works to create the sense of emotional dislocation that is as the heart of the play and it allows the sardonic Gurov distance from himself and from life. But it also serves to distances the audience, and particularly so when rising star Monica West's nervous Anna constantly interrupts Gurov's telling, until her word-spurts become as irritating as the raucous seagulls in Ryan Healy's sound design. A mere two-or-three interruptions would have sufficed to define Anna's childishness and anxiety.

Best of all are director Ginkas' poetic metaphors and playful humor. Gurov makes love to Anna on the beach: she lies down, he pulls a taut swatch of silk from beneath her hips up onto a ladder and, as she pulses, he ripples the cloth and flicks sand down it length, like seed. The play opens charmingly with four swimmers gamboling in non-existent surf. Gurov first approaches Anna, carrying a lifted beach cabana as though it was an awakening phallus. Knee-deep snow in Moscow and Petersburg is represented by an immense and rather grubby drop-cloth, laid over the upturned cabanas. Lit from below in Michael Chybowski's first-rate lighting design, the two lovers tenderly outline each other with cascades of back-lit sand.

Stephen Pelinski shines as Gurov. He's sexually charismatic and game to join Anna's frenzied frolics; he's emotionally detached and, once love settles on him like a cloak of lead, he seems to age and assume an awful heaviness. Youthful and beautiful, Monica West's jittery Anna nicely contrasts with Pelinski's worldly Gurov. She's all pent-up energy, angst and self-recrimination. When she accepts the inevitability of tarnished love, she evolves from girl to stiff and saddened woman.

Playing all other roles, such as lapdog, other beach occupants, Gurov's children, stationmaster, dressers, props and comic olio performers, are skilled Trey Burvant and Robert Olinger as two vaudeville-like clowns. The script names them Gentleman Sunbathers, and they are dressed in old-fashioned, knee-length, chest-concealing bathing suits. But they also wear costume designer Barkhina's rumpled dress tails, striped stockings and bowler hats, and they function in the mockingly absurdist tradition of Beckett's hapless humans.

Ginkas has his cast interact with the audience, which happened to be a still and unresponsive audience the night I attended. Pelinski obligingly hopped off stage to pick up an object that had fallen noisily to the floor in the front row, and one of the clowns waved goodnight to a slow trickle of defecting audience members (six from my immediate area.)

For theater enthusiasts with the patience of Job, who can tolerate Lapdog's creeping pace and its arts-for-art's-sake indulgence, they will enjoy its Jacques Le Coq-style theater magic and Beckett-like surrealism. Caveat for more fidgety theatergoers - there ain't no intermission.

Lady With a Lapdog September 18 - October 10, 2004. Tuesdays- Saturdays 7:30 p.m. Sundays 7:00 p.m. Matinees on selected Saturdays and Sundays. $22 - $30.Guthrie Lab, 700, North First Street, Minneapolis. Tickets: 612-377-2224, or Toll Free: 877 44 STAGE.

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Elizabeth Weir

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