Sunday, February 28, 2016

Santa Clara University: The Good Doctor

Left to right: Cameron Wells, Kalina Venugopal, Michael Standifer, Nick Medal, Claire Parchem. Photo courtesy Santa Clara University. 
One might not think of the works of Anton Chekhov as being rich material for comedy. However, the Russian author and playwright had a wit that was sadly overshadowed by early dour productions of his work. In the 1970’s, Neil Simon adapted some of Chekhov’s short stories into The Good Doctor, effectively Chekhov-turned-sketch-comedy. Santa Clara University’s current production, helmed by director Aldo Billingslea, makes the Chekhov/Simon duet shine brightly.

Some of the scenes are straightforward: “Surgery” features a vaudeville duo – an incompetent doctor (Drew Descourouez) and a priest with a toothache (Elahdio Aliaga), while in “A Defenseless Creature,” a loud woman (Kalina Venugopal) torments a bank manager and his assistant (Aliaga and Descourouez again – all of the actors play a handful of characters). These are scenarios common to old comedy, but Simon’s framing structure – using a nameless writer (Cameron Wells) to open and close each scene – provides a level of metahumor.

Later scenes have more complex structure and unusual jokes. My personal favorite was the late scene “A Quiet War,” where Nick Medal and Claire Parchem assume the roles of retired high officers who have a formal, strategized argument over what makes the perfect lunch. Despite the characters’ similarities, the actors interpreted them differently: Medal’s Army officer is loud and brash, while Parchem’s Navy is sly and willing to bend the rules of their argument. They might be at each other’s throats, but one can get a sense of their deep friendship.

The SCU production combines the sophistication of Chekhov’s characters and scenarios with the fundamentals of mid-20th-century comedy. Jerald Enos’ set hints at the more elaborate, realistic sets commonly used for Chekhov’s plays, but all of the larger elements are moved to the back, allowing ample room for Simonesque slapstick. Billingslea’s flexible direction both makes use of the empty space for slapstick and what set elements exist for scenes like “The Drowned Man”.

Featuring a funny, versatile cast and the unique combination of Chekhov/Simon comedy, Santa Clara University’s The Good Doctor makes a great evening. Most likely, you will find that some of the scenes are funnier or more appealing to you than others, but it’s never a dull moment. This testifies to the wide diversity of the material, as well as the breadth and imagination of the SCU production.