An intense, intimate, and intelligent night of theatre

A review of the Spiel Players' production of "The Raven" and "Lady with a Lap Dog"

Beau Dixon and Lisa Hamalainen perform in Hamalainen's stage adaption of Chekhov's "Lady with a Lap Dog" (photo: Spiel Players)
Beau Dixon and Lisa Hamalainen perform in Hamalainen's stage adaption of Chekhov's "Lady with a Lap Dog" (photo: Spiel Players)

Lust, regret, desire, madness and memories: four conditions of the human mind that are universal throughout time and are featured as the emotional centerpiece of the Spiel Players’ production of The Raven and Lady with a Lap Dog.

For two nights only, a collection of Peterborough’s most noteworthy performers brings to life tales from two of literature’s most celebrated authors — Edgar Allen Poe and Anton Chekhov — in an unique theatre experience that adds something new to Peterborough’s theatrical landscape.

A one-act production combining music, drama, and literature, the production opens with Robert Winslow’s dramatic rendition of Poe’s The Raven. Directed by Beau Dixon, Winslow brings the insanity, darkness, and melodrama associated with the works of Poe in an emotional and frenzied performance.

Just to recite the entire monologue is a feat upon its own, but Winslow’s haunting presence as a grieving man slowly going mad leaves a special impression on the audience through the use of creative lightning effects (provided by Rob McInnis) as well as Winslow’s piercing vocal changes as he becomes both the mad man and the unseen raven.

A short piece, it is a nice opening for the drama to come.

Directed by Kate Story, Chekhov’s Lady with the Lap Dog is clearly the centerpiece of the night. With Beau Dixon aptly cast in the role of Moscow banker Dmitri Gurov and Toronto-based actress Lisa Hamalainen as the tragic Anna Sergeyevna, Lady with a Lap Dog is the bittersweet love story of an adulteress affair between two people who meet while on holidays in Yalta.

Lisa Hamalainen as the tragic Anna Sergeyevna (photo: Spiel Players)
Lisa Hamalainen as the tragic Anna Sergeyevna (photo: Spiel Players)
Through lust and obsession, the story is a character study of two unhappy individuals who battle both passion and guilt as they find comfort from their loveless marriages in each other’s arms. Although first published in 1899, the narrative is as relevant today as it was when Chekhov wrote it — proving that romance has always been complicated.

The transformation of Chekhov’s short story into theatre is the product of the extraordinary talents of Lisa Hamalainen. She not only takes the central role, but also wrote the script by translating the original Russian text to English and forming it into a three-person stage play.

Originally presented by Hamalainen at the 2012 Toronto Fringe Festival, this production is a rare opportunity to see Chekhov presented in a unique way.

Although the drama is executed by Dixon and Hamalainen, the story is held together by the warm narration of Rob Winslow in the role of a nameless bar owner who guides the audience through the drama, filling in Chekhov’s original narration between dialogues. It proves to be the second strong performance by Winslow in an intimate night of theatre.

A wonderful feature of the show is a pair of lap dog puppets created by Brad Brackendidge for the production. Perhaps it was just my poor vision, but I had to actually ask the person seated next to me if the first puppet was, in fact, a real dog! A second dog puppet in the form of a marionette was a charming addition. The puppets are fantastic so I was disappointed that there wasn’t more use of them — I couldn’t get enough!

Rounding out the production are haunting live musical performances by Justin Hiscox on piano and Saskia Tomkins on violin. Dark and beautiful, the music sets the mood for the production and brings the entire evening together as a whole, adding continuity to the two pieces as well as creating the illusion of passage of time and location during Lady with a Lap Dog. Hiscox and Tomkins create an artistic trinity of literature, theatre, and music.

The Raven and Lady with a Lap Dog form an intense and intelligent night of theatre. It may not be suitable for those looking for an evening of light entertainment; instead, it’s for people with a love for classic literature and theatre or who are looking for something different to do on a night out.

Regardless, this is a chance to see some of this city’s most talented and celebrated performers in a night of dark melodrama.