Theatre Preview: Chekhov perfect escapism

By Janice Tran

When audiences walk through the doors of the Martha Cohen Theatre and enter the world of Alberta Theatre Projects’ Enbridge playRites Festival they choose to escape reality. For a moment in time they open their minds to an entirely new perspective on life and maybe even themselves. Director Mansel Robinson’s entry in the festival, Picking Up Chekhov, offers exactly the kind of escape audiences yearn for.

The story begins with a family in the midst of falling apart. In an attempt to flee from their problems the father Skiokski and daughter Stevie take a road trip, embarking on a gripping adventure. Robinson puts a creative spin on the classic road trip narrative–you won’t just get one perspective of the road trip, but 32 of them.

“Each character has a different take on [the situation],” Robinson explains. “Eventually if you can triangulate all of that stuff you might get a clearer picture. It is still partial, but it will lead you to a better understanding.”

To tell the story succinctly through the many different characters, Robinson uses roles many audience can relate to.

“They’re ordinary people, firemen, waitresses, cops on the road, librarians, all very down to earth people,” he explains.

One of these characters is Chekhov, a hitchhiker and playwright who leads the father and daughter to various places on their journey. With so many characters, Picking Up Chekhov sinks or swims depending on its cast. Robinson doesn’t have any apprehension about the quality of actors filling the roles.

“We were able to cast two 16-year-old actors, which is great because it is not an adult playing kids, it is kids playing kids,” he says. “The relationship between the father and the daughter is very believable and authentic because [it accurately reflects] the age.”

Chekhov is lighter in its political ramifications than some of Robinson’s other works. His piece Spitting Slag was shut down at the beginning of production because of its political agenda.

“I wrote one a few years ago that was apparently so testy the audience spent the evening trying to decipher my political message instead of watching the characters,” says Robinson. Fortunately, the experience hasn’t inhibited Robinson’s writing.

“It was kind of flattering actually,” he responds. “It was an interesting eye opener to see that kind of fear of idea.”

Picking up Chekhov delivers more tame and less controversial themes. Dropping the overtly political messages, the play’s central themes are the struggles of family, communication and perceptions.

“I won’t mind if you find something political in this piece,” Robinson comments. “But I’m really not sure what that might be.”

Whether audiences get something political from Chekhov isn’t important. What they will get is an entertaining piece of escapism.

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