SEX, GUNS, AND VODKA
The Untitled first play by Anton Chekhov
Adapted and directed by Joey Folsom
The Classics Theatre Project
Produced by The Classics Theatre Project
Production Manager – Luisa Torres
Anna – Madyson Greenwood
Nikolay – Andrew Manning
Sergey – Jon Garrard
Porfiry – Jackie L. Kemp
Burgov – Brian Witkowicz
Mikhail Platonov – Robert San Juan
Sasha – Rhonda Rose
Maria – Janae Hatchett
Sofia – Devon Rose
Osip – Braden Socia
Kirill – Blake Hametner
Marko – David Britto
Reviewed Performance: 5/21/2022
Reviewed by Chris Hauge, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
What do you do with an early play by a renowned classical playwright that remained untitled, unpublished, unproduced, and discovered years after the author’s death? If you are Joey Folsom, Artistic Director of The Classics Theatre Project, you pare down its epic length and huge cast, you pluck it up out of its original time period and plop it smack-dab in the ’70s with some ‘fab’ costumes and lots of disco music, and you give it a title that will invite attention and interest. Thus, you get “Sex, Guns, and Vodka,” now playing at the Margo Jones Theatre in Fair Park. This adaptation of an early Anton Chekhov play is roughly around two hours of outrageousness that may confuse you at times but, in the end, will keep you laughing.
According to my online research (mostly Wikipedia), supplemented with a talk my wife and I had with Artistic Director Joey Folsom, the script’s director, and adapter during the intermission, Chekhov wrote the play in 1878, his first full-scale work in four acts (though the author never considered it finished) specifically for actress Maria Yermolova who was an up-and-coming star for the Maly Theatre. She rejected it and Chekhov put the script in a desk drawer (or safety deposit box depending on the source) where it was found several years after his death and published in 1923. The entire work has been translated into English but because of its length (sources cite it running anywhere from four to seven hours) and large cast, it is rarely performed in its entirety. Adaptations have been written and performed under various titles since it was first found. Mr. Folsom is part of an illustrious (and for me, up to now, unknown) tradition.
We begin at the estate of Anna Vonitseva (Madyson Greenwood), the widow of a general. The room is set for a party. The lights are twinkling, balloons strew the floor, and the glittery bar holding the aforementioned (and always available and continuously consumed) vodka beckons. As the guests arrive, we are treated to conversations that concern (usually negatively) the people who have not yet arrived. When those people arrive, their adverse feelings about them are expressed on their faces. Of course, this is all done in a witty and intellectual way. Arriving in the middle of all of this is Mikhail Platonov (Robert San Juan), a schoolmaster who woefully admits to all present that he is a man with no true morals and love and will destroy all of those present. Over the course of the play, he proceeds to do just that.
That is what we see through the course of the evening. We listen to Platonov bemoan his desire to seduce someone, and we listen to him tell the object of his desire that he will destroy them and then bemoans the fact that he is an immoral beast. And to top it all off, he successfully pulls off the seduction and then, drinking himself into uselessness, bemoans it. It is a lot of self-pity to put up within one play and if it weren’t for the talented cast and barely contained chaos of Joey Folsom’s direction which makes the whole enterprise wonderfully funny, it would be insufferable.
I must admit up front that my wife and I saw the production under difficult circumstances. There was a festival being held near the theatre and the sound of celebratory music was in the background throughout the performance. I doubt this will be a problem during future shows. It made it hard to understand what was said onstage during the first ten minutes or so. Either the actors started speaking louder or my ears became adjusted to the environment but after a while, I had no problem following the dialogue. And there was a lot to follow.
There was, of course, Platonov complaining about his inability to remain faithful to his wife, Sascha (Rhonda Rose), and his desire to seduce the willing widow Anna, and the willing Sofia (Devon Rose) who is the spouse of Anna’s adult son Sergey (Jon Garrard) who has his own feelings for Platonov, and the willing Maria (Janae Hatchett). We have the elderly landowner Porfiry (Jackie L. Kemp) who wants to propose to Anna, and his wastrel son, Kirill (Blake Hametner) constantly hounding him for money to continue his lavish lifestyle in Paris. There is the drunken doctor Nikolay (Andrew Manning) who is taking money from the rich man Burgov (Brian Witkowicz) for reasons I have still not been able to figure out.
Rounding out this cast of characters is Marko (David Britto), a messenger who disparages his customers while taking their tips and delivers (I think) important links to the plot.
Then we have Osip, the groundskeeper and general scoundrel (Braden Socia), who bursts into the party brandishing his wonderfully fake rifle (the two guns used on stage are very unrealistic and quite benign) and carrying a stuffed ram or small deer or standard poodle on his shoulders. Osip also pines for the beautiful Anna.
All the proceedings run at a break-neck (and, for the characters, alcohol-fueled) speed, which helps the extreme melodrama, tragedy, and the personal angst of all involved go down easily. Acting styles range from realistic to over-the-top posing and the accents run the gamut from standard American English to Scottish and French (or Russian. I was not entirely sure.). None of this is meant as negative criticism. I found this mélange of styles fun to watch and very funny.
There is no creative staff listed in the program so I’m assuming the cast, with the supervision of the director, had a hand in building the minimal set and creating their costumes. Most everyone is dressed in appropriate period clothes, but special attention must be paid to Kirill. Dressed in a colorful big sleeved shirt and sporting platform shoes with hollow plastic heels filled with dice and poker chips which announce his presence with a cheerful clatter, he is the perfect picture of the wayward son. I must also mention Osip, the self-admitted thief, and a giant of a man, who seems ready to burst out of his forester’s costume at any moment.
The cast is totally committed to director Folsom’s vision for the play and all of them are incredibly talented. Robert San Juan has the necessary charisma as Chekhov’s stand-in for Don Juan, though the character’s self-pity can be a bit grating. As the seductive widow Anna, Madyson appropriately smolders. Andrew Manning makes the drunken doctor Nikolay much more appealing than he could be as he stumbles from scene to scene. I must also commend Braden Socia’s performance as Osip. Mr. Socia combines menace and comedy in a way that I have never seen before. He makes this very scary person appealing and he reminds me of Victor Buono. That is a good thing.
I must thank the entire cast for making this show as entertaining as it is. I did not understand everything that went on and if I were asked what the show meant I would be hard-pressed to do that. But my wife and I enjoyed it. And you can’t ask for more than that. So, I am not sure if you will end up as befuddled as I was, but if you take the time to see “Sex, Guns, and Vodka,” I’m sure you will have a fun time.
SEX, GUNS, AND VODKA
Produced by The Classics Theatre Project
Playing through June 11, 2022
Friday -Saturday – 8:00 PM
Margo Jones Theatre – Fair Park, 1121 1st Avenue, Dallas, TX 75210
For tickets and information go to www.TheClassicsTheatreProject.com