The Boston fringe scene is losing one of its most youthful and successful companies, the Independent Drama Society. The story seems to be that the burden of administration has begun to overshadow the creative aspirations of many company members. I think the best thing I can say in recognition of their work, far better than any positive review, is that while I often find myself seated amongst a sparse audience of insiders–friends, actors, classmates–the IDS shows I’ve attended always pulled in a diverse crowd. From this I can assume that a) they’re just really popular people or b) they’re just really successful at finding and reaching an audience–something even our large theaters struggle with. I’m going to stick with the latter (although I’m sure they have lots of friends).
IDS picked up a challenging text for their farewell show, now at the Factory Theatre; Neil Simon’s loose adaptation of some of Chekhov’s comic and ironic short stories and sketches, The Good Doctor. The play frames eight brief scenes within a meta-narrative spoken by a Chekhov stand-in referred to as The Writer (Bob Mussett). This narrator treats us like house guests and the scenes come to life almost cinematically, as he either tells us the stories or scribbles away in his notebook. Simon cribbed some of The Writer’s lines from Trigorn, the celebrity novelist in The Seagull, but Simon’s character is by no means as vile. Simon gives us a quirky and intelligent author with a developed sense of humor that’s well matched, at least to the surfaces, of Chekhov’s sketches. Mussett’s delivery was seamless and natural.
Although we get period costumes and the settings remain Chekhov’s, the show feels smartly current. Much more so than the UK National Theatre‘s ham-handed attempt at updating The Cherry Orchard‘s language and characters that I caught at the Coolidge via NT Live. I don’t know if I have Simon or IDS to thank for this. Nor do I know who to blame for a few of the sketches being duds.
The scenes alternate between heady political and social satire, outright slapstick, and sometimes even twisted fables, but it’s not clear who’s doing the bulk of the alternating; Chekhov, Simon, or IDS. Each sketch somehow deals with power inside of a particular situation. Usually the scenes revolve around the pairing of a character with someone superior to him, whether that’s by social status or the particulars of the given situation; a governess and her employer, a father and his son, a seducer and the seduced, a government clerk and a general, a casting director and actress. And often the power inside a scene shifts from one character to another–half of the sketches contain a financial negotiation! I don’t know if IDS paid as much attention to these power dynamics as they did to pulling laughs out of the one about the dentist and the priest, but high production values and good acting and direction gave some of the sketches substance and interesting tensions and twists.
Triple casting let some actors shine more in some roles than others, but standout performances included Sierra Kage, Melissa DeJesus, Zach Eisenstat, Sarah J. Gazdowicz, Chris Larson, and Victoria Townsend. “The Seduction,” where a rakish gentleman with a penchant for other men’s wives walked us through his methods of seduction, was pure gold. Remarkably, it could have just as well been performed to a conference room of lonely bachelors in an airport Ramada. And they’d probably pay more! Also fantastic was “The Governess,” where an ambiguously intentioned woman screws with her governess to to get her to stand up for herself.