I’ve always maintained that a production of Chekhov that didn’t leave me laughing and crying in equal measures had seriously missed the mark. But Raven Theatre’s very funny revival—direction by Michael Menendian and straightforward translation by renowned playwriting teacher Jean-Claude van Itallie—has temporarily changed my mind. Perhaps it’s due to the fact that of Chekhov’s four major plays, “Sea Gull, ” with its delicious send-up of artistes and their vainglorious self-absorptions, is probably the one that can lend itself best to a heavily comic interpretation and still manage to provide an entertaining—if emotionally lightweight—evening. Clearly this is Raven’s approach and it’s a perfectly respectable one, more so because Menendian has prevented the acting from slipping into parody, a common pitfall. Case in point: one of “Sea Gull”’s famous lines (“Because I’m in mourning for my life.”) to one of Chekhov’s funniest opening questions (“Why do you always wear black?”) secures the laughs thanks to Melissa Nedell’s natural comic timing. But it’s also due in part to the hilarious sight of her Masha’s raccoon-like black-eye-circles and hairdo from hell. Thankfully, by the last act this Masha had rightly resisted the temptation for camp to deliver a memorably funny and sensitive performance. The rest of the cast fare just as well. Chuck Spencer’s beautifully spoken doctor finds some compassion alongside the Chekhovian conviviality. JoAnn Montemurro exploits her cherubic face and inherent stage warmth to suggest an Arkadina that is not the cruel and calculating glacial matriarch of so many current interpretations, but an unknowingly distant parent for whom motherhood has never come easy. And as her son Kostya, Tom Bateman’s intensity as the petulant avant-gardist of the first three acts befits the production’s overall comic tone. A fine and funny Chekhov, Raven’s revival would also be perfect for those who have never seen the author’s work on stage and who might mistakenly think of him as the dramatic equivalent of valium. (Fabrizio O. Almeida)
Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark Street, (773)338-2177. Thu-Sat 8pm/Sun 3pm (no performance 4/8). $20-$25. Through May 27.